TAMPA — The angel ornaments sparkled, dusting the prosecutor's fingers and clothes with silver glitter as she spread them across her office conference table.
She touched a black marker to the wings of each. First, she wrote the name of a child. Next, the date on which a life ended violently.
Alexis Garcia. May 24, 2010.
John Baxley. Aug. 10, 2010.
Rita Peters has followed this grim ritual for years, marking angels to honor children she knows only in death as chief of the Hillsborough state attorney's sex crimes division.
She has 11 ornaments, all reminders of young lives lost. Her angels won't spend Christmas in a dark government office. They will go home with her and dangle from her family's tree and remain in her life.
She can't help but be this way.
"I can't divorce myself as a person from myself as a prosecutor," she said.
• • •
Other prosecutors do.
It's not that they are apathetic to the horrors endured by sex and child abuse victims.
But, on some level, Peters' colleagues are able to detach. The emotional distance helps maintain an edge in court and their own mental well-being.
Peters, 39, doesn't operate like that, despite handling the worst of the worst cases: the teachers who prey on students, the teenager who beat and raped a schoolgirl at a library, the parents who shake babies until tiny skulls fracture.
Work regularly seeps into her personal life, haunting her thoughts and affecting her habits.
A little girl from a pornographic video won't go away. Peters tries to sleep and hears her screaming. The little girl, a toddler, wore pigtails. Peters has her own little girl and can't style her hair that way anymore.
"I'm not good at shutting it off at all," she said. "But I don't think I'd be the same kind of prosecutor if I could shut it off."
Instead, she weeps over case files in the privacy of her office and after every verdict in court.
She lets children hold her prosecutor's badge on the witness stand, for courage.
She proposed to a 5-year-old boy, a rape victim who worried no one would ever want to marry him.
She embraced a prostitute after a jury agreed the woman had been sexually battered.
"You're the first person who's ever hugged me," the woman whispered into Peters' ear.
The prosecutor carries in her wallet the obituary of 2-year-old Heather Romance, who authorities say was raped and murdered by her mother's boyfriend in August 2006.
Peters remembers the day doctors took the toddler off life support.
That Christmas, she began buying the angel ornaments.
In February, when the boyfriend goes on trial, Peters plans to seek the death penalty.
"I think it's a big honor to be her last voice," she said. "And I don't know how I'm going to tackle it without crying."
• • •
In the beginning, Peters was reluctant to take a job prosecuting sex crimes. She worried she couldn't handle the emotional toll.
She started in the fall of 2001. In her first case, she prosecuted a Tampa landscaper accused of molesting his 5-year-old neighbor and raping a 13-year-old quadriplegic.
As soon as she opened the file, she was hooked.
"I just could not believe what I was reading," Peters said. "I just instantly wanted to go and connect with those victims."
She won a conviction, one of dozens of victories she counts against child abusers, rapists and murderers.
Colleagues and adversaries say she's as tough in a courtroom as she is soft outside it. Her compassion for victims does not cripple her or cloud her judgment.
She harnesses her feelings, and they motivate her.
"She's where she needs to be," Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said.
The daughter of Italian immigrants — she didn't speak English until kindergarten — Peters rose in the ranks to become deputy chief and then chief in 2005.
She had found her calling. But then it happened. She lost a trial.
Two years ago, a woman testified that she had been attacked and repeatedly raped by a stranger. She couldn't identify him but police found him through DNA.
The jury didn't convict.
Peters vomited after the verdict. She was scared to pick the jury at her next rape trial. She didn't want another victim let down.
It took some time to find faith in the system again, but she got past the nerves. She has learned not to assume that any case is a sure thing.
Victim advocate Kelley Purpura appreciates Peters but also worries about her.
"Sometimes I tell her, 'You know, you can't bring this stuff home with you because if you do you're going to burn out. Who's going to be there to pick up the pieces?' " Purpura said.
• • •
Peters relies on her tight-knit colleagues and family for support. She is married to a Hillsborough sheriff's corporal.
Their two children bring her joy and remind her of innocence.
Her profession makes her a vigilant parent, but only to a point.
"I can't let my kids live in a closet," she said. "And I won't live in a closet, either. That's no way to live."
On the days when Peters reaches a saturation point, when she is overcome with sadness about the awful things people do, she draws strength from fighting for the most vulnerable among us.
That's why she names the angels. To remember.
And it's why each morning before court, she looks at a photocopied picture taped to her office wall. A forlorn little girl stares back with big, sad eyes.
Gabrielle Randel. March 8, 2009.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.