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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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How a father finds mercy to spare daughter's killer
David Peck decides to honor his daughter's love for life.
By JACOB H. FRIES, Times Staff Writer
Published August 7, 2007
David Peck reads a statement to the Judge as if spoken by his slain daughter Amber Peck while his wife and Amber's mother Glenda Peck sobs during the hearing where Leo Boatman changed his plea to guilty at the Marion County Courthouse in Ocala, FL for the Jan 2006 murders of students Amber and friend John Parker in the Ocala national forest. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms on the Florida Department of Corrections.
Under watch by Marion County Sheriff's Deputies Cpl. Carlos Rios, left, and Lt. Ron Burnett, center, Leo Boatman, of Largo, Fla., makes his first appearance before Judge Jim McCune in the courtroom at the Marion County Jail in Ocala, Fla.
David Peck wanted Leo Boatman to die for his crimes.
Boatman stole an AK-47 assault rifle, went into the Ocala National Forest and for no reason at all, opened fire on two campers, killing Peck's daughter, Amber, and her friend, John Parker.
Their deaths were neither quick nor painless.
"He just walked up to her, even though she had fresh wounds and was pleading for her life, and shot her again," said Peck, 66, a retired postal worker. "From the beginning, I really wanted the death penalty and nothing else."
In capital murder cases, prosecutors typically ask families for input - whether they prefer the death penalty or a life sentence - and then they weigh those preferences against other factors.
But in this case, prosecutors were prepared to do whatever the families wanted. It was in their hands.
How do parents, full of grief and loss, find justice? How do they decide whether someone else's child should die because theirs did?
Last week, in a courtroom in Ocala, both families concluded the case wasn't about them and what they wanted. It was about their daughter, their son and finding a way to move on without them.
* * *
In January 2006, Boatman, then 19, boarded a Greyhound bus from Clearwater to Marion County.
He hiked into a secluded area of the Ocala National Forest called Hidden Pond where he encountered Peck and Parker, both 26-year-old students at Santa Fe Community College. Boatman would later say in a confession that he and the students exchanged hellos.
He fired from 30 yards away as the students walked through the vegetation. He moved closer and fired the last of about 10 shots at close range. Before leaving the forest, Boatman tried to submerge both bodies in the pond. That was where Parker's family found them a few days later.
Boatman told detectives that the shooting "was a spur of the moment" act.
"That's the only thing that, you know, bothered me about the whole thing," he said.
Investigators quickly tracked Boatman to a Largo mobile home and took him into custody on two counts of first-degree murder. And despite a host of mitigating factors - from his birth in a mental institution to seven years in the juvenile justice system - Boatman's crimes clearly made the death penalty a possibility.
But Boatman's lawyer offered a deal. Boatman would forgo a trial and plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
Prosecutors called a meeting July 12 and told the Peck and Parker families about the offer. They laid out pros and cons and told them for the first time about Boatman's background. They said they were confident they could sustain a death sentence through the appeal process, but it might take as long as 15 years.
"I told them, 'Consider your own feelings, what you think is just and what you can emotionally bear and let us know your feelings,' " State Attorney Brad King recalled. "That's part of my obligation to them - to support them and help them through the process."
The two families talked it out.
What was important now?
What would their children want?
Did Boatman deserve mercy because his childhood had been horrific?
By the end of the meeting, the group had a consensus, but prosecutors told them to think it over during the weekend.
Peck had changed his mind: Boatman should live. His reasons were a mix of mercy, practicality and a desire to honor his daughter's love for life. And as much as he might have liked to see Boatman die, Peck couldn't bear to watch his wife, Glenda, suffer under the stress and anguish of a drawn out legal battle.
But the families had conditions. Boatman must admit the murders in open court, get two consecutive life sentences and do his time in maximum security. Plus, the parents must get some latitude in what they were able to tell the judge.
During Boatman's sentencing hearing last Monday, David Peck was still angry. He wanted Boatman to know his effort to destroy his daughter failed.
"I wanted him to know that whatever he tried, her dreams will go on," he said.
To prove it, a scholarship in the names of Amber and John has been established at Santa Fe Community College.
* * *
David Peck says he still doesn't understand what could have possessed Boatman to kill two innocent people who said only "hi" to him. But mostly, he doesn't worry about him anymore. He's more focused on what's ahead.
"It really kind of felt like you had a pressure weighing you down and now you are able to breathe again," he said recently. "Both families are able to go out and breathe again."
This week, for the first time since Amber was killed, the Pecks plan to get back on the road in their 35-foot RV. During the next month and a half, they will visit Virginia, New York, Ohio, Michigan and Alabama. They know they will never stop missing Amber or forget the man who took her away, but forward motion feels right, David Peck said.
"It's like you can see the light at the end of tunnel," he said. "We're not there yet, but you can see the light."