CLEARWATER — A 22-year-old man convicted of nearly killing his ex-girlfriend by stabbing her 32 times outside her Clearwater home was sentenced to life in prison without parole Monday.
Nearly two years ago, Melissa Dohme was stabbed by ex-boyfriend Robert Lee Burton Jr. Afterward, doctors said she was seconds from death. Months of surgeries and therapy followed.
Burton pleaded guilty to an attempted first-degree murder charge in August. On Monday, his family sobbed as the judge handed down his sentence.
"Both of their lives," said Circuit Judge Keith Meyer, "will never be the same."
Dohme, 21, whose emergence as an advocate for domestic violence victims and whose romance with one of the paramedics who saved her life gained nationwide attention, recounted her attack to a packed courtroom Monday.
During the early morning of Jan. 24, 2012, Burton had repeatedly called and texted her. She had broken up with him. He had a no-contact order from a battery charge in which Dohme had been the victim.
Could he swing by her house, he asked on the phone, for one final hug?
Dohme agreed. "I just wanted him to leave me alone," she testified Monday.
Outside her house near Crest Lake Park, Dohme embraced him. Then she heard the click of a switchblade knife and the stabbing began.
It didn't seem real, she said, until the knife sliced down her throat and filled her mouth with blood.
At some point, he retrieved a larger knife from his red truck and continued stabbing Dohme. He drove away as two strangers called 911. She crawled to a mailbox so that he wouldn't run her over.
"I lied there in the dirt, and it felt like forever. I was alone. I didn't want to die," Dohme said. "I didn't want my mom to walk out to my murder scene."
A trauma surgeon testified Monday that it was a miracle Dohme survived. She suffered a stroke from the blood loss and had cuts across her arms, neck, head and face. Her teeth were knocked out, and her skull was cracked.
"She was seconds away from dying," said Bayfront Health St. Petersburg trauma surgeon Dr. Jeffery Johnson.
But Dohme survived, eventually leaving the intensive care unit. She learned to walk again and underwent cognitive and speech therapy. She later underwent more surgery to diminish the appearance of her scars. The right side of her face, where a stab pierced a facial nerve, remains mostly paralyzed, she testified.
Burton was captured later on the day of the attack after he overdosed on sleeping pills and crashed his truck in Pasco County.
Defense attorney Victoria Holmberg asked the judge to have mercy on Burton.
She pointed out that prior to the battery and attempted murder charges, Burton never showed a streak of violence. No criminal record. No disciplinary problems at school.
"This is an aberration," she said. "Doing a horrible thing doesn't always make you a horrible person."
His stepfather, Michael Manzi, testified that Burton was a typical boy who just needed to get his life together after high school. He was unemployed and out of college at the time.
"Just lazy," Manzi said, "but he's always been a good kid."
Before his sentence was announced, Burton briefly stood and apologized.
"I can't express the depths of my regret and sorrow," he said. "I will have to live with that forever."
As he was sentenced, members of his family began to sob. "I'm so sorry," one woman whispered.
Afterward, Dohme burst out of the courthouse doors, smiling and holding hands with boyfriend Cameron Hill, a Clearwater firefighter-paramedic.
She plans to attend the University of South Florida to pursue a career as a social worker or a victim advocate.
"I am not a victim of domestic violence. I am a survivor of domestic violence," Dohme said. "I can finally move on. This book is closed."