LARGO — For stabbing his 20-year-old girlfriend 32 times, Robert Lee Burton Jr. told a judge on Tuesday that he was willing to plead guilty— as long as he didn't have to spend more than 10 years in prison.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Keith Meyer rejected that offer, which made it appear Burton's long-awaited trial on an attempted murder charge was about to begin.
But then, after a discussion with his attorney, Burton surprised victim Melissa Dohme and many of her friends and family members in the courtroom by agreeing to plead guilty, period.
He admitted his crime without any deal from prosecutors, meaning he could face up to life in prison.
"I'm shocked that that happened," said Dohme, now 21. She said she was still grasping the fact that she no longer has to work toward his conviction.
"I am here. I am alive. My fight's over, I won. It's the court's fight, not mine anymore."
She does intend to speak at his sentencing hearing, to tell the judge she fears there will be other victims if Burton ever gets out of prison. A hearing date has not been set.
Although Burton, 22, appeared to cry as he pleaded guilty, Dohme's mother Joann said, "I think those tears were for himself."
Assistant State Attorney Scott Vieth said Burton engaged in an escalating pattern of abuse. The couple already had broken up when he texted her in the early morning hours of Jan. 24, 2012, asking to meet. He sounded down and was close to her Clearwater home. He just wanted a hug.
When she met him near Crest Lake Park, they embraced. That's when he began stabbing her with a pocketknife.
Two people heard her screams, but he threatened them, saying he had a gun. They backed off and called 911, but remained within eyesight.
Burton reached into his truck for what the bystanders thought might be the gun, but instead retrieved a bigger knife and stabbed her more.
She was stabbed in her head, neck, and arms. Her skull was cracked, her teeth knocked loose. She lost so much blood that doctors had to give her seven blood transfusions.
Burton's surprising decision on Tuesday afternoon came after a full morning of arguments about whether he was mentally capable of standing trial and understanding the proceedings.
Based on the testimony of three mental health experts, the judge ruled that he was.
After the attack, Dohme spent three weeks at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Medical Center. She flat-lined four times and suffered a stroke that affected her balance. A severed nerve partly paralyzed the left side of her face.
Doctors weren't sure that Dohme would ever speak, smile or walk the same. But she left rehab without a cane and eventually returned to St. Petersburg College-Clearwater with renewed passion to become a nurse.
"I'm just so proud of her," her 24-year-old sister Michelle said Tuesday. "You wouldn't think your younger sister would be your role model."
Dohme has become an advocate who speaks on domestic violence. Outside the courtroom Tuesday, she said she wanted to let other victims know they aren't alone.
"There is a better life after abuse … you deserve to be loved and respected. Never ever ever should a man lay a hand on you," she said.
Dohme later reconnected with a firefighter-paramedic who helped rush her to the hospital that early morning. The two are now dating.