Justice denied for one family

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2005

In 1997, Mark Duke killed his father, his father’s fiancee and her two small daughters and then went to the movies with friends.

After the movie – he saw the popular horror film &uot;Scream&uot; – he went to play pool and grabbed a bite to eat.

He and his friends then ransacked his father’s house to make it look like a robbery had occurred and called the police to report the murders.

Mark Duke was 16 when he killed four people. Today, he’s 23 and, until last week, Duke was on death row.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, because he was under age 18 when he committed his crimes, he can’t be executed for them.

Instead, Mark Duke, the teenager prosecutors said was driven to murder because his father wouldn’t let him use his truck, will spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole.

His partner in the murders, Brandon Samra, was 19 at the time of the slayings, and will one day be executed. Two others, Michael Ellison and David Collums –

both under the age of 18 at the time of the murders – are spending 15 years in prison for their part in planning and covering up the crime.

The trial of Mark Duke wasn’t the first murder trial I ever covered as a reporter.

It wasn’t the first case I wrote about in which a death sentence was given. It wasn’t even my first trial involving a teenage killer, having covered a trial just a few months earlier in which a 16-year-old walked into a pawn shop and killed two strangers.

But Duke’s trial was the most disturbing. Duke looked like a regular teenager. He went to a good school and lived in a nice home.

He had a group of friends he ran around with and they, too, looked like average teenagers.

The details that emerged in Duke’s trial were horrific.

He had shot his father in the head leaving his body slumped over the fireplace hearth.

He and Samra then chased his father’s fiancee, Dedra Hunt, and her two daughters, Chelisa, 6, and Chelsea, 7, up the stairs.

He and Samra shot Hunt in the head and slit Chelisa’s throat. They drug Chelsea kicking and fighting out from under a bed to slit her throat.

All of us in the courtroom that day saw the bloody crime scene photos. They were too graphic for many in the courtroom, including Chelisa and Chelsea’s father.

Most of his family left the courtroom before the photos of his murdered children were splashed across a screen.

I have mixed feelings about the death penalty, torn between an eye for an eye and turning the other cheek.

But sitting in the courtroom that day, there were no mixed feelings. If someone like Mark Duke doesn’t deserve to die for his crimes, I don’t know who does.

Leada Gore is the publisher of the Hartselle Enquirer and the Madison County Record. She is the former managing editor of the Shelby County Reporter.