TAMPA — Robin Harris got there an hour early. She brought a friend for support. They had been sitting outside the locked door of Courtroom 61 for half an hour when a victim's advocate arrived with forms asking her to detail the impact of her son's death.
Harris' eye caught on the name atop the page:
State of Florida vs. Derrick Cullins.
"That's just a problem, looking at his name," Harris said.
Cullins, 29, was back there somewhere, waiting to answer to two murder charges because, according to deputies, he stabbed her son and his own brother to death.
She wanted to look him in the eye.
The form gave a space for items she never recovered: Her son's Acer laptop with Barack Obama and Superman stickers, a green button-down shirt, blue jeans and a black backpack with one strap.
Then, at the bottom of the page:
This is your opportunity to let the court know how this case has affected you or your family and what hardship you have experienced.
It gave her four empty lines.
There was so much more to say.
• • •
Ryan Darkins Davis was her first baby boy. He had her smile and her wild sense of humor, and he made her laugh even when he got in trouble for making kids in school laugh. By age 20, he had strutted in a fashion show at Hillsborough Community College. He had served as a student government senator. He was studying criminal justice as she once had, in hopes of becoming a cop.
He was doing laundry that last night she saw him, April 5, 2009. His friend Carl Walters had asked him to sleep over. As her son ran off, she yelled after him that if he didn't empty the washer and dryer tomorrow, she'd throw out his clothes.
But he didn't come home on April 6, and that wasn't like him. One of the first places she thought to look was at his friend's home. That was the first time she saw Derrick Cullins, who was Walters' brother.
The house was completely dark when Cullins answered the door. She remembers the man's blank face when she asked where her son and Cullins' brother were. He seemed distant. He played with his cell phone. He said he didn't know.
According to deputies, Cullins was busy that week, cleaning, painting walls, disposing of carpeting and furniture at a city incinerator. When his 21-year-old brother's body was found naked in a field on April 10, stabbed 18 times, Cullins told deputies he saw his brother at the house with three unknown men and that when he woke up, he smelled something unusual and noticed carpeting and furniture missing.
Deputies say an examination revealed cuts on Cullins' fingers and buttocks, blood drippings on his clothes and shoes and a bite mark on his chest.
Cullins was charged with one count of second-degree murder.
Harris would wait 11 months for count two.
• • •
The judge was running late.
But Harris was used to waiting.
She waited through the month of May as police dug through a Lithia landfill and found nothing. She spent months watching the news and calling a detective every time someone found a body, wishing she could just go to the jail and ask Cullins herself, but knowing she wouldn't be allowed to see him. Christmas came and went with no lights and no tree.
Then, in February, some boys shooting at birds in the woods of Plant City happened upon her son's skull. She had his bones cremated and put them in an urn in her home. Earlier this month, she got a call from the State Attorney's Office that Cullins had been charged in Davis' death. Her reaction:
"It's about time."
The courtroom opened, and there he was, in jailhouse orange and handcuffs. She looked at the man she believes lied to her face. He stared ahead.
"He never knew my son," she said.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder took the bench, and Cullins was the first called. His attorney entered a plea of not guilty.
The lawyers talked about the new victim and a need to consult with medical examiners and anthropologists.
For some reason, Harris thought of the time she cooked a big pot of crab and came home to find it empty. "Ryan!" she yelled.
Now, people whisper his name. Now, lawyers talk of skeletal remains.
"Judge," the prosecutor said, "I do want to mention that the second victim, Ryan Darkins Davis, his mother is present."
The judge looked at the woman who sat toward the back of the courtroom.
"She is always welcome," he said.
Cullins, too, looked back, caught her eye and looked away.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.