After 17 years of hope and prayer, everything changed Friday with an 8:30 a.m. phone call.
"Guess what," a voice told Mary Lewis, "today is the best day of the rest of your life."
And just like that, the 70-year-old was happier than she'd been in a long time.
The Florida Supreme Court had ordered a new trial for her son, Michael Peter Fitzpatrick, 51, sentenced to death for a 1996 fatal stabbing in Pasco County.
Justices found that Fitzpatrick had ineffective help from his trial attorney, who should have consulted with experts on the DNA and other forensic evidence used against him.
"I'm walking on air today," Lewis said. "It was just the start of a beautiful day. "
Fitzpatrick was accused of raping and killing 28-year-old Laura Romines, found naked with a slit throat on the side of a rural Land O'Lakes road in August 1996. She died two weeks later.
Fitzpatrick has claimed his innocence throughout.
"I did not kill or cause any harm to Laura Romines," Fitzpatrick said in a hearing in 2001.
Lewis remembers the day of his conviction. "I absolutely went numb," she said. "It was beyond my comprehension."
Despite the pain and shock of losing her firstborn, she never got depressed. Instead, she wanted to fight. She visits him once a month, but always wished she could spend real quality time with him.
She's getting older, and even though her health is good, she knows she doesn't have that much time left, and so much has changed.
Fitzpatrick's grandmother and stepfather have both died. His stepfather especially, she said, wanted to live to see Fitzpatrick's conviction overturned.
Today, she told him.
"I had a tearful moment with my husband this morning," she said. "I went down to the cemetery before work and talked to him. It was really important to me that he knew there was a chance for Michael's reprieve."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Jon Silman at (727) 869-6229 [email protected]