School shooting verdict raises tough questions about retribution and justice

October 20, 2022 8:00 am

Children participate in a March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Round Rock, Texas. It was one of more than 800 March for Our Lives events organized by survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There was no menace left in the school shooter who sat across from me in the prison visitor’s room.

Clad in a blue chambray shirt and a tired expression, he told me about that fateful day in 1989 when he entered a day-care center in League City, Texas, and started shooting. A bullet ripped through the heart of a teacher who ran from him. She fell, midstride.

Her hopes, dreams, aspirations ended as the blood puddled beneath her prone form.

Youngsters screamed, hollered and ran every which way.

Standing between them and the killer was another teacher holding a terrified 3-year-old, who clung to a well-worn toy rabbit. A bullet ripped through the teacher’s breast, another through her hand and another punched through her body.

Miraculously, not a single shot hit the child. Even more remarkably, the woman lived.

The killer turned and ran. Months later, he was caught in Louisiana. I sat in the front row of the courtroom, notebook in hand, as he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Thirty years later, I found myself sitting across from him in a prison as he neared release.

I found myself asking tough questions about forgiveness, retribution and justice. Should someone who kills ever walk free?

Looking into the murderer’s eyes, I felt no fear. Any menace he once possessed was long gone. Looking at him, the only word that came to mind was: pathetic.

What turned this preacher’s kid into a cold-hearted killer? I met his mother and sister at the trial. They were lovely people: kind and gentle to a fault.

They begged jurors for leniency. (In Texas, jurors can determine punishment as well as whether someone is innocent or guilty.)

Leaving the prison that day, I searched for a hint of justice. The closest I could come up with was: Twelve men and women chose this outcome.

His life will end not in a death chamber or a prison cell. He will die old, disgraced and free. Can a person who committed such evil ever be happy?

I thought of that killer, Clyde “Buddy” Spence, this past week as a Florida jury spared the Parkland shooter from the death penalty. He killed 17 people and wounded another 17.

But he gets to live. It doesn’t seem fair. Life seldom is.

The scars he left will never heal.

When I returned to Texas, I talked to the family members of the teacher killed. They are still hurting.

I spoke with the teacher who was wounded three times. She has forgiven the man who harmed her. But the bullet wounds still mar her flesh.

And I’ve spoken to the child who the teacher held in her arms that fateful day. She is now a mother of three fine boys. She still has the toy rabbit discolored with her teacher’s blood. Her psyche bears worse stains. The shooting has become her earliest memory.

Four years ago, I heard from that child survivor again. This time she was on social media frantically searching for her niece. I asked what happened and she said there was a gunman in the local high school and she didn’t know if she was safe.

The niece survived but 10 students and teachers at Santa Fe, (Texas) High School were slain. Another 13 were wounded.

I learned of one of the worst school shootings in American history, from the survivor of the first school shooting I covered more than 30 years before. Strange.

In the wake of the Santa Fe shooting, I’ve repeatedly traveled to Texas looking for answers. But after speaking with survivors and families of the slain, I only have more questions.

Next month, I head for Uvalde, Texas, notebook in hand. Justice remains elusive. But someone needs to ask the question: Why do our children keep dying in classrooms and how do we stop it?

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Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for the Illinois Times, is a veteran journalist who has worked for newspapers in the Midwest, Texas and Nevada. He has won numerous national and state journalism awards including an Investigative Reporters and Editors Medal. He lives with his wife, three daughters and a menagerie of pets near Springfield, Ill.