BROOKSVILLE — Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. looked down at a sheet of paper and adjusted his glasses. He exhaled. For the first time in his life, he prepared to condemn a man to death.
The 69-year-old Merritt spoke, as always, in a measured, Southern drawl. A salt-and-pepper mustache sits atop the stern conservative's deep frown lines. Other judges respect him, attorneys fear him and defendants dare not make him angry. Nonsense has no place in his courtroom.
John Kalisz, the murderer of two Hernando County women and a Dixie County deputy, stood before Merritt on Tuesday afternoon. His head shaved and eyes dull, Kalisz stared at the judge and chewed on his gums. He had apparently forgotten to wear his false teeth.
Merritt read the final words of the sentence: "death in a manner prescribed by law." The judge looked up. He glared at the defendant.
"May God have mercy," Merritt said, pausing. His eyes glassed, and his upper lip quivered. The judge clenched his jaw, then continued. "On your soul."
On Jan. 14, 2010, Kalisz killed his sister, Kathryn "Kitty" Donovan, and her office manager, Deborah Tillotson, in Donovan's home on Wilhelm Road, west of Brooksville. He also shot his niece, Manessa Donovan, and Amy Green, an employee at Kitty Donovan's home-based business. Last year, Kalisz received life in prison for killing Dixie sheriff's Capt. Chad Reed, who was shot trying to arrest him that day two years ago in Cross City.
No cheers erupted in the packed courtroom when Merritt read his decision. In January, a 12-person jury unanimously recommended that Kalisz be executed. Everyone knew what to expect Tuesday.
As Kalisz learned that he would die, the 57-year-old former roofer showed no emotion. He kept chewing.
Toward the back of the room, Tillotson's husband, Lee, nodded his head. Her daughter, Nicole DiConsiglio, wiped tears from her rosy cheeks.
Dixie Sheriff Dewey Hatcher leaned forward and gripped the shoulder of Reed's father, Broward, who sat on the front row with his wife, Faith. Broward Reed turned. The two men both smiled and shook hands.
A worn metal coin the size of a half-dollar sat at the bottom of Broward Reed's pocket. It's inscribed with his son's name, a Bible verse and a short quote: "No Greater Love." The emblem never leaves him.
The Reed and Tillotson families came together as law enforcement and the media shuffled out. DiConsiglio hugged Mrs. Reed, then wrapped her arms around Broward Reed. She closed her eyes and squeezed hard.
Later, Lee Tillotson stood in a quiet back room with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the floor. Kalisz's death sentence didn't bring him a grand sense of closure, and it won't change his life. His wife is still gone.
"There are no winners in this thing, only losers," he said. "Now, it's just time to heal."
No one from Kalisz's family attended.
Also not present was Capt. Reed's wife, Holly.
She had thought about coming, but her oldest son, 11-year-old C.J., had his first baseball game Tuesday. She kept score.
Also, both C.J. and his brother, Caden, 7, are entering animals in a livestock fair this weekend. One has a dairy cow; the other a rabbit. She spent the day at a farm helping C.J. and his classmates prepare their cows for competition. She tied her hair in a ponytail and tucked it under a baseball cap. She wore jeans, a T-shirt and rubber boots.
On a perfect Florida day, the kids bathed the cows and learned to saddle the animals. Holly was standing in a barn when she realized that on the day her husband's killer would be sentenced to death, she was with her son, laughing and being silly and walking cows. It made her smile. Her husband would have wanted that.
Holly supported the judge's decision, but she didn't regret not hearing it. Kalisz, she decided, wouldn't take away any more from her boys.
"I'm not going to miss anything more in their life," she said, "because of him."