‘Time has still not eased the pain’
Mother of 1993 murder victim during resentencing hearing for Ricky Maurice Roberts
With tearful, heart-wrenching testimony, her grief still fresh 25 years later, the mother of a Stowe murder victim addressed the juvenile killer who took her daughter’s life and is seeking parole.
“The grief and pain that I, as a mother, and we as a family, have had to endure is just indescribable and excruciating. Time has still not eased the pain, it is agonizing every single day,” Sandra Saunders, the mother of murder victim Brenda J. Rhoades, testified Friday in Montgomery County Court during the resentencing hearing of convicted killer Ricky Maurice Roberts.
“Brenda had so much to live for. She had her whole future ahead of her at only 26. Brenda would be 52 years old and I have to visit my daughter at her grave, something a mother should never have to do in her lifetime,” Saunders choked back tears as she testified for Assistant District Attorney James Price. “I miss her so much every single day of my life.”
Roberts, 17 and a special edu
cation student at Pottsgrove High School at the time of the June 7, 1993, gunshot slaying of Rhoades, who was his neighbor, wiped tears from his eyes as he listened to Saunders’s grief.
Roberts, now 43, formerly of the 800 block of East Howard Street, pleaded guilty but mentally ill in November 1993 to a charge of general homicide in connection with Rhoades’s killing. Judge Bernard A. Moore subsequently convicted Roberts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole.
But Roberts recently was granted a re-sentencing hearing after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juveniles. In 2016, the high court said the ruling should be applied retroactively.
Judge Gail A. Weilheimer, who has the responsibility to fashion a new sentence, heard testimony this week from Rhoades’s relatives and other evidence regarding Roberts’ dysfunctional childhood, his mental illness and his conduct and accomplishments during his incarceration.
“In my opinion, you should never be allowed out, you should stay behind bars as your original sentence was imposed, for life; anything less would just be a privilege to you and a punishment to my family,” Saunders addressed Roberts directly. “I understand that my wishes will not bring Brenda back, but you should never be allowed out of prison. If Brenda cannot get a second chance at life, you should not either.”
Other relatives of Rhoades testified or wrote letters to the judge, describing Rhoades as a “bright, compassionate and loving person” who wanted children one day and they spoke forlornly about the holidays and family celebrations they missed with Rhoades. As they spoke, relatives tearfully glanced at a framed photograph of Rhoades that they carried to court.
Laura Angstadt, the victim’s sister, testified that attending a re-sentencing hearing for Roberts was like “re-living a nightmare.”
“Going through this once in a lifetime is inconceivable, but to be here again is just unbearable,” said Angstadt, adding her sister’s murder left a void in her heart that can never be filled.
Weilheimer, calling their pain “palpable,” assured Rhoades’s relatives she will consider their testimony as she determines a new sentence for Roberts.
“I see your beautiful daughter. I recognize the loss to your family. Brenda didn’t deserve this. No one does,” Weilheimer addressed the grieving family members.
Weilheimer will hear additional testimony on Sept. 28 before determining a new sentence for Roberts.
In light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and guidelines established by higher courts, prosecutors essentially can’t seek the same life prison term without parole that Roberts received in 1993. Newer guidelines for juvenile killers have recommended sentences in the area of 35 years to life.
Regardless the sentence that Weilheimer eventually imposes, it will be up to the state Board of Parole to decide if Roberts is released at his minimum term.
Defense lawyers Carrie L. Allman, the chief homicide lawyer in the county public defender’s office, and Assistant Public Defender Daniel Theveny Jr. relied on the testimony of psychiatrists and prison officials to support their argument for immediate parole for Roberts, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and claimed “voices” told him to kill his neighbor.
Defense witnesses testified Roberts “believed that he was one of the bad angels and that he was doing the devil’s work” at the time of the killing, but no longer has hallucinations or delusions, has matured after serving 25 years in prison and has complied with protocols for taking anti-psychotic medications to treat his schizophrenia.
Roberts, defense witnesses testified, has adapted well to a structured lifestyle in prison and is a low-risk for recidivism if released from prison.
During her questioning of some defense witnesses, the judge made clear she is concerned about Roberts’ mental health needs and his medication management.
Psychiatrists, prison officials and social workers claimed mental health services, including halfway houses, group homes and counseling, do exist that can assist parolees in maintaining their medication protocols.
Witnesses appeared to agree that if Roberts is released from prison, he would still need “wrap around services” from a treatment team to ensure he continues to take his medications.
Authorities said Roberts, who was living with his grandparents on East Howard Street at the time of the killing, confessed to shooting Rhoades once in the head with a .22-caliber handgun after going to Rhoades’ home under the guise of needing a cup of sugar.
During the 1993 trial, psychiatrists for both the prosecution and defense testified that Roberts was extremely dangerous and that he may be inclined to kill again without continuous mental health treatment. The doctors maintained Roberts was not insane at the time of the killing and that he was able to form the specific intent to kill, a requirement for a first-degree murder conviction.
Ricky Maurice Roberts, now 43, convicted of killing Stowe neighbor in 1993 when he was 17, is back in a Montgomery County Courtroom for a re-sentencing hearing. The hearing will continue on Sept. 28.