A mother's duty to her slain son

Presence: A woman attends every court proceeding for the people convicted in her child's death.

April 23, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

She never sits in the front row, always somewhere else in the courtroom, the petite grandmother with large eyeglasses framing red-rimmed eyes, a purse strap in the crook of one elbow, a tissue in hand.

In nearly two dozen court dates over the past year and a half -- through trials, sentencings, judicial hearings -- Ida Ann Miller has endured the gruesome details of her youngest child's murder, staring down all five of those convicted in the Glen Burnie slaying.

"I have to be there. I've got to make sure that the ones that did this get what's coming to them," says Miller, 58, who today will be in court for yet another hearing for one of the convicted murderers.

While people often attend court proceedings for a slain loved one, victims' rights advocates say Miller stands out for her constant courtroom presence at numerous proceedings for so many defendants.

"She exemplifies the need for most victims to know and hear what is going on," says Roberta Roper, the Upper Marlboro mother whose treatment by the courts after her daughter's slaying led her to jump-start the victims' rights movement in Maryland two decades ago. "She is being a presence for the person who has no voice."

In Miller's case, that has meant a grim parade of days in the Anne Arundel County Courthouse. She misses work, gives up lunch to sit on a hard, wooden courtroom bench, listening over and over to chilling details of the crime -- and harsh reminders of her murdered son's imperfections.

"He was my son," says Miller. "I have to be there for him."

Mark Miller was one of 463 people slain in Maryland in 2001. His body was found in August in a Glen Burnie baseball dugout a few blocks from his parents' apartment. He had been stabbed 28 times, his throat slit and the claw of a hammer dug into the base of his skull.

Within days, detectives arrested five defendants in the slaying, which prosecutors described as a power dispute within a local gang that Miller had become involved with days before his death.

Since then, whenever one of the defendants has appeared in court, Ida Miller has been there as well.

Five times -- six as of today -- for Sean Matthew Almond, who is serving life without parole for first-degree murder in the slaying and is seeking a reduced sentence, while appealing the conviction.

Twice for James Thomas Blake, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years.

Three times for Tracy C. Devilbiss, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, was sentenced to 25 years and asked a judicial panel to ease her sentence.

Ten times for Andrew Grant Handschuh, who was convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to 45 years and failed to win a sentence reduction from a panel of judges. He has appealed.

Three for a teen-age girl who was sent to a juvenile detention facility.

It is a duty she has taken upon herself, with the support of Maureen Gillmer, who heads victim-witness programs for the state's attorney's office.

Admittedly protective of the rest of her family, Miller discourages her husband, Leroy, from attending, because he is suffering from high blood pressure and rage at having his youngest child killed. She has told her other four sons to go to work, take care of their families and not show up in court.

"I always had somebody with me in court -- I had God with me," she says.

She has been through a painful evolution in her response to what she hears in court.

In March of last year, Miller wept most of the way through Devilbiss' plea, the first of the adult cases to come to a resolution, and was so overwrought she could not speak afterward.

But a year later, on March 25, when a three-judge panel heard Handschuh's bid to change his 45-year sentence, Miller's gaze could have bored holes through the defendant.

"I guess now, I am just numb," she says. "After you hear it the first couple of times, you don't really hear it."

Still, she speaks at every sentencing, always beginning her prepared remarks the same way: "I could stand here and say our son was only 22, beginning his life as a young adult. But I'm going to say he could have been anyone's son, and no one's son should have to die in the way our son did."

Miller has painful memories of her son's troubled teen-age years and the family's efforts to get him help through counseling.

A truant who often left his family searching the neighborhood for him, Mark Miller eventually spent time in the state's Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, his mother said. He used drugs sometimes and, after an arrest for look-alike drugs, spent a year and a half in the Anthony Correctional Center in West Virginia, where the family lived for a while. When he left the facility, he told his family he was thinking about a career in computers.

"It's hard to watch your son being taken away and being locked up," his mother says. "But at least you could go see him and know he was getting help."

He had only been home a week and was working at the Glen Burnie carnival when he got involved with members of the small-time gang that called themselves the Crips. He was branding volunteers with a hot knife when he was attacked by gang members who police say resented his influence over the group.

"I never said he was perfect," says Ida Miller. "But he did not deserve what happened."

So she comes to court time and again, paperback in hand, to confront her son's killers with quiet dignity and to bear witness to his memory.

She says: "When I do the last one ... I can say, `OK, Mark, it's over.' We'll go up to his grave, and say, `Mark ... .' It's very hard."

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