An advocate for victims relives her loss to help others

Mother of murdered kids hopes to make difference

April 22, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - As if in a recurring dream, Lisa Spicknall is seated in yet another courtroom awaiting a verdict.

It seems the strangest place for her to have come voluntarily.

After all, less than a year and a half ago, she attended her former husband's trial, which ended with his pleading guilty in Kent County to fatally shooting their two children as they lay strapped in their car seats.

After her children were killed, the young Pasadena mother says she considered ending her life.

Instead, she has found a way to slowly re-enter the world: by sitting in on trials alongside others who have also had their lives shattered by a loved one's murder.

Almost weekly, Spicknall, 27, steps back into a courtroom - back into the lion's den - and relives her loss as she hears testimony about beatings and murders and coroner's reports.

She calls herself a "victim advocate," which can encompass tasks as diverse as advising victims on their rights as a trial unfolds and fielding calls in the middle of the night from a distressed parent or spouse.

Sometimes, she holds a victim's hand.

When a Frederick County jury returned with a verdict Feb. 20 in a high-profile murder case, it was Spicknall who sat beside the aggrieved mother, clasping her palm.

Spicknall barely knew the woman, Mary Voit, whose 9-year-old son, Christopher Ausherman, was molested and murdered in November 2000.

But the two became intimate strangers, linked by misfortune. As they sat together, looking expectantly at the jurors as they filed into the courtroom, it was hard to distinguish the victim from the victim advocate.

"Having other victims there really does make a difference," Spicknall says. "When I can talk to a victim and say, `My children were murdered also,' it makes them realize they're not the only ones out there that this has happened to."

Devoted to family

Spicknall was 16 when she met her future husband, Richard W. Spicknall II. She married him at 21 and devoted herself to her new family.

The couple separated in November 1998, she says, after he became abusive. "I always thought if I could do this right or I could do that right, it could change," she says. But she soon came to believe that he posed a threat to her and their children if she stayed in the marriage.

Richard Spicknall was granted visitation rights and had taken Richie, 2, and Destiny, 3, for an Eastern Shore vacation Sept. 8, 1999, when police got a report of a problem near Cambridge.

Spicknall told police that he had been overpowered by an armed hitchhiker. He said the man had thrown him off the U.S. 50 bridge and sped off with the children inside the Jeep he was driving.

But at his trial, jurors heard a 45-minute taped confession in which he tearfully explained how he had shot the children, then tried and failed to kill himself when his gun misfired and he survived an 80-foot fall into the Choptank River.

He told police in the confession that he was distraught and had stopped about 11 p.m. at a fishing pier, hoping to hand over his gun to a state park ranger. Finding the park office closed, he fired two shots into the back seat, hitting the children.

When police found the Jeep, Richie was dead. Destiny died in a hospital the next day.

On Nov. 13, 2000, Richard Spicknall was sentenced in a plea deal to life in prison without parole.

The trial was over, and then Lisa Spicknall had to figure out what to do with the rest of her life.

First, she faced an enormous letdown.

"The criminal justice system can leave people feeling very hollow," says Stephen Bailey, a Baltimore County deputy state's attorney who met Lisa Spicknall during a recent trial she attended. "People can turn their emotions and their energies and their anger toward whoever committed the act. But then the case is over and, as it has to, the criminal justice system moves on."

Lisa Spicknall had once worked as a "jack of all trades" in a law office, but that didn't seem meaningful anymore.

She began attending a weekly support group meeting of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, an Upper Marlboro-based victims rights group. The nonprofit organization is named for a Frostburg State student who was raped and murdered in 1982.

The support group sessions have seemed to help Spicknall. Each Tuesday night, victims gather in a circle, surrounded by walls of photographs of the dead, to talk about their changed lives. One snapshot shows a happy blond girl with her arm around her blond younger brother - Destiny and Richie.

A handwritten sign lays out ground rules for the group, including: "Respect each other's feelings and beliefs" and "No competition of feelings - whose pain may be more or less."

Recently, the private sessions have included a few people who lost family members in the Pentagon attack Sept. 11.

In February 2001, Spicknall joined the Roper staff as a paid victim advocate - a post she knew would place her in close contact with the raw pain of others.

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