COCOA — For Vicki Rios-Martinez, peace has come slowly over the years, growing bit by bit as she began writing poetry, tending her garden, listening for her dead son's voice when she meditated.
But complete closure to her family's 17-year ordeal may never come. It still eludes them, even following their attendance at the July 1 execution of Mark Dean Schwab, the man who raped and murdered their 11-year-old son, Junny.
"It has brought about a peace … just to know that we don't have to go to another appeal … just to know that it's over and that he'll never get out and hurt another child," she said. "But closure? Seventeen years is way too long to wait for justice. And something that you cannot forget, it's real hard to close the door."
For nearly two decades, Rios-Martinez and her husband, Braulio, who goes by the nickname "Junny," have occupied a prominent, and unwanted, role in the nation's long-running debate over the death penalty.
Their son's murder in 1991 became what is now a familiar cable TV mega-event, complete with breathless reports and frenzied speculation.
Junny, a sandy-haired boy with a sunny disposition and a winning smile, became a target after his photograph appeared in the local newspaper. Schwab, just two weeks past an early release from prison for raping a 13-year-old boy, saw the photo and became fixated.
Posing as a journalist, he tried to weasel his way into Junny's world, eventually pretending to be his father in a telephone call and arranging to pick up the boy at school. Schwab then kidnapped, raped and murdered Junny.
The trial was over in about 15 months, with Schwab convicted and sentenced to death. But the appeals process lasted nearly 15 years, prolonging the family's suffering, they said.
The family's outspoken criticism of the glacial pace of the appeals process and their insistence that Schwab pay the ultimate price made them a target for some death penalty opponents.
Junny Rios-Martinez — the nickname he goes by and gave to his son that came from his grandmother — went through a long period of anger that still flashes quickly to the surface. He once routinely pummeled a boxing bag to vent his fury.
He finally channeled the anger into building an addition onto the rear of their neat home that fronts a small lake.
Vicki Rios-Martinez met the challenge of her son's death with concerted attempts to make something positive out of the tragedy. Over the years, with her husband as partner, she battled for children's rights and became an advocate against abuse and for the rights of the victims of crimes.
The experience left her frustrated with legislators and the criminal justice system, which she says is weighted far too much in favor of protecting criminals' rights at the expense of victims' rights.
"We definitely need to have a better system," she said. "We definitely need to have a children's bill of rights. We definitely need to have a victim's justice system, and we need to start changing it now."
Junny Martinez makes no apologies for the couple's outspoken support of the death penalty.
"Those bleeding hearts, the majority of them have no children and couldn't fathom what we've been through," he said. "They haven't a clue. And yet they all have an opinion. And they feel that their opinion is much more important."
Vicki Rios-Martinez opposed the death penalty before her family's tragedy, out of a reverence for all life. She now supports it, she says, because she feels she must do so in order to protect other children from killers like Schwab.