Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Mom asks parole board to spare son's murderer

Condemned convict met with woman in mediation program

A confessed killer, Johnny Joe Martinez, is scheduled to die by injection next week. The mother of his victim is trying to stop it. 

In a rare move, she has sent a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking that Mr. Martinez's death sentence be commuted to life.

"To execute Mr. Martinez would be a double crime against society," wrote Lana Norris, whose plea came after an unusual face-to-face meeting with her son's killer. 

Ms. Norris, who also asked to talk personally with each member of the 
board, says she believes in the death penalty. She and her 2nd husband, 
Thomas Dillon, now deceased, backed a law to allow victims' families to 
witness executions in Texas' death chamber. 

Her letter makes it clear how devastated she was by the vicious stabbing 
death of her son, Clay Peterson, "my precious baby boy," as he worked an 
overnight convenience-store shift 9 years ago. 

"I have hurt more than I knew possible," she wrote. "I no longer wanted 
to live and even counted the pills, considering suicide in those early 
days. While I never took the pills, I just wanted out of the pain."

But, she added, she doesn't want another mother the killer's to go 
through the same agony. "Please, do not cause another mother to lose her 
son to murder, needlessly!" she wrote. 

Any impact of Ms. Norris' letter won't be known for several days. Gerald 
Garrett, chairman of the board of Pardons and Paroles, said he doesn't 
know whether he will schedule a public hearing to consider the case; if 
not, members will vote by fax machine, as usual, on whether the sentence 
should be carried out. 

Ms. Norris declined to talk with The Dallas Morning News about the letter 
except to say that, "I've been blessed by an extraordinary God and as a 
result of that have probably been healed more than most victims."

She said she prayed long and hard about the decision before writing the 
letter May 7. She wrote it 4 days after meeting with Mr. Martinez, 29, in 
a mediation program offered by the prison system. 

Mediation involving victims and offenders in Texas has been available 
since 1994 at the request of victims. Only a handful out of the roughly 
100 sessions held to date have involved death row inmates, said Edwardo 
Mendoza, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's mediation 

Few victims' families in death row cases have sought mediation, and some 
convicts have refused them, perhaps because their cases are still on 

Information stemming from mediation is confidential and not given to the 
parole board for consideration of cases. 

Ms. Norris asked for a mediation session even though Mr. Martinez had not 
responded to a previous letter. After both parties underwent extensive 
counseling to prepare for the session, they met in the chapel of the 
prison unit in Livingston that houses death row. 


Here are the contents of a letter Lana Norris wrote to state pardons 
officials, seeking clemency for her son's killer:

Dear Sir:

It is my understanding that there is a petition on the commutation of the 
death sentence to a life sentence in this case. I would like to have this 
letter considered as part of your decision in this issue. If possible, I 
would also like the opportunity to talk with each of you personally, 
either by phone or in person. As Clay Peterson's mother, I feel that I 
have been affected by this crime more than any other person, with the 
exception of my precious baby boy, Clay.

Clay was 20 years old at the time of this crime. Even in the turmoil that 
existed in the beginning, I knew that Clay was okay and had forgiven 
Johnny Joe Martinez (hereafter referred to as Mr. Martinez). Yet, I did 
not know if the death sentence was appropriate. I was not and never have 
been asked if the death sentence was what I wanted. While I know that 
this case is the State of Texas vs. Mr. Martinez, my desires should be 
considered. I realize that I was too close to the case and too 
emotionally distraught to be able to look at things objectively at the 
time of the trial.

For over 8 1/2 years, I have struggled with the knowledge that I was in 
some way connected to an inmate on death row. Many times, each day, I 
think of Clay, and always my thoughts turn to Mr. Martinez. I am not 
trying to minimize the hurt and struggle I have been through. I have hurt 
more than I knew possible. I have felt anger, regret and every possible 
emotion. For a time, I lost hope and was clinically depressed. I no 
longer wanted to live and even counted the pills, considering suicide in 
those early days. While I never took the pills, I just wanted out of the 

For 8 1/2 years, I have revisited the pain of that night many times. I 
have struggled with the pain of knowing that Clay would not want this 
execution. To some extent, having an inmate on death row has complicated 
my recovery process. For the last couple of months, I have struggled with 
this issue even more. While I do believe in the death penalty, with the 
date of execution drawing near, I have done much soul searching. When 
Clay was killed, his crime was more than a crime against me and his 
family. It was a crime against society.

Clay was a loving, caring, young man. He was active in Christian youth 
ministry and would have had a positive impact on many throughout his 
life. While Mr. Martinez had a different start in life, there was nothing 
before this incident that would have led anyone to believe this crime 
would happen. Last Friday, May 3, I had the opportunity to do mediation 
with Mr. Martinez. There is no doubt in my mind, that to execute Mr. 
Martinez would be a double crime against society. Here is a young man 
that has truly repented and regrets his actions of July 15, 1993. If his 
sentence is commuted to a life sentence, he will be 54 before his 1st 
possible chance of parole. During that time, he could be a positive 
influence on other inmates that he comes in contact with. He may be able 
to help them understand how to change their life and direction for the 

Please, do not cause another mother to lose her son to murder, needlessly!

In His Love,

Lana K. Norris 

The murder victim's father issued this statement to the public:

My son, Clay Peterson, was a Christian who witnessed to many people in 
the South Texas area in his short life. I do not believe that he would 
have demanded the Old Testament punishment of an eye for an eye, but 
instead would have followed the teachings of Christ to forgive not 7 
times, but 70 times seven. I can do no less.

Society must protect itself from those who do not value the lives and 
property of others. However, I doubt that Johnny Martinez would be a 
threat to society by the time he would be eligible for parole if his 
sentence were commuted to life.

Paul B. Peterson 


The session lasted about 4 hours, said Mr. Martinez's defense attorney, 
David Dow, who witnessed the meeting. He described it as an extraordinary 
event that began with Ms. Norris holding Mr. Martinez's shackled hands in 

'I killed her only son' 

Mr. Dow said his client was nervous before the session. 

"I killed her only son," he told Mr. Dow as he waited for the session to 

The killing occurred July 15, 1993. After a night of drinking, Mr. 
Martinez, then 20, robbed a Corpus Christi convenience store. Mr. 
Peterson, a college student who had celebrated his 20th birthday the day 
before, was stabbed 8 times in the neck, back and shoulders. The brutal 
killing was caught on videotape by a store surveillance camera. 

About 15 minutes after the stabbing, Mr. Martinez called 911 from a 
nearby motel, told the police dispatcher what he had done and said he 
would wait for authorities to arrive. He surrendered without resistance, 
expressed remorse and later confessed. 

During mediation, Ms. Norris told Mr. Martinez she wanted answers about 
what happened that day. The answer was similar to what he said at trial 
nine years ago: "I don't know why. That's a question I will never be able 
to answer." 

Mr. Dow said there was no anger in the mediation session. "I don't think 
there were any raised voices." 

There were tears and occasional smiles. 

About halfway through the session, Mr. Dow said, Ms. Norris told Mr. 
Martinez that she believed in the death penalty but added, "I don't think 
it's right for you." 

At that point, Mr. Martinez asked whether she would write a letter on his 
behalf. Ms. Norris said she would think about it; she called Clay's 
father, Paul Peterson, who lives in the Dallas area, before sending the 
letter a few days later. 

Mr. Peterson, who is divorced from Ms. Norris, said he understood why she 
wrote the letter. Though he, too, supports the death penalty, he said he 
doesn't object to a commutation for Mr. Martinez. 

'70 times 7' 

His son discussed his Christian beliefs with many people and "would have 
followed the teachings of Christ to forgive not seven times but seventy 
times seven," Mr. Peterson said. "I can do no less." 

He said he had no desire to go through mediation with Mr. Martinez, but 
after talking with Ms. Norris, "I doubt that Johnny Martinez would be a 
threat to society by the time he would be eligible for parole if his 
sentence were commuted to life." 

Mr. Dow said he is considering some last-minute legal maneuvers in the 
case, but Mr. Martinez's fate now rests largely with the Texas Board of 
Pardons and Paroles. The 18-member board is expected to vote this week on 
Mr. Martinez's case. 

Chairman Gerald Garrett said a letter asking for clemency from a relative 
of the victim is "out of the norm." Because Ms. Norris was among those 
most directly affected by the crime, it would have more impact than most 
letters received by the board. 

"Here is a young man that has truly repented and regrets his actions of 
July 15, 1993," she wrote. "If his sentence is commuted to a life 
sentence, he will be 54 before his 1st possible chance of parole. During 
that time, he could be a positive influence on other inmates that he 
comes in contact with." 

No hint of violence 

Mr. Martinez is different from most death row inmates, said Mr. Dow, 
because he "had absolutely no markers in his own personal history that 
would have suggested that he was going to stab somebody to death one day. He had no prior convictions; in fact he had no prior history of violence." 

Mr. Dow says his client, a high school dropout, was abused as a youngster and left home at age 14. 

To receive the death penalty in Texas, an offender must be shown to pose a future danger to society. Nueces County District Attorney Carlos Valdez said he knew Mr. Martinez had no history of criminal behavior but the brutality of the crime was enough to seek the death penalty. 

"We thought the offense itself, which was captured on videotape, showed the viciousness of the case and the case called for the death penalty," Mr. Valdez said. 

Mr. Valdez said he consulted with family members before seeking the death penalty; Ms. Norris and Mr. Peterson say they were not asked. 

Clemency from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which must be approved by the governor, is rare. 

"I was appointed in 1995," Mr. Garrett said, "And during my tenure, Mr. [Henry Lee] Lucas is the only person that has received a commutation recommendation." 

Mr. Lucas, who confessed to being a serial killer, had his death sentence commuted to life in 1998, because of doubts about his truthfulness. 

District Attorney Valdez said he didn't know if Ms. Norris' plea would sway the parole board to commute Mr. Martinez's sentence, but he didn't think it should. "If anybody's thinking about changing their mind, I suggest they watch the video of the killing," he said. 

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