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No room for hate in father's world

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By ELIJAH GOSIER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2000


You look for something that is different. Instinctively. Unconsciously.

There is comfort in finding it; anxiety, maybe even a little fear, when you don't.

You scrounge for something that says he is not one of us, that we could never be him. And you strain to assure yourself that the "us" and "we" includes your neighbors and co-workers.

No comfort comes looking at Jessy Joe Roten.

His shirt is too white and so big that you half-expect his head to retract down his collar, like a turtle inside its shell, without even undoing his maroon tie. The dark pants, too, have the look of nothing inside them.

But the world is full of people strutting around with their hands jammed in the pockets of borrowed, ill-fitting clothes. His dress does not set him apart from us.

His eyes are dark and are deeply set in a chalky, pale face, but even though the combination prompts one courtroom spectator to remark, "He looks like a vampire," it does not make Jessy Roten different. Many people, even in sunburned Florida, have deep, dark eyes surrounded by almost porcelain-white skin.

He is young, 19 years old, but sadly, courtrooms are full of young people sitting on the wrong side of the law.

You can't look at him and know that he does not move easily among us, that he would be detected in our midst. There is nothing in Roten's appearance that sets off an alarm, no assurance that he is not the boy next door. That is disappointingly discomforting.

If what the state of Florida is saying about him is true, that probably suits him just fine. Skinheads and the other white supremacist groups Roten associated with like to think they intimidate people, especially people whose lives contradict their warped beliefs.

Terry and Tracy Mance, who saw Roten before he was dressed for court, before he grew a full head of hair where barely stubble had been before, back before he had lawyers to keep him from blurting out racial insults, never suspected there was a danger of the horror the state charges Roten put them through.

According to those charges, which Roten is facing in a trial that started last week, he fired a high-powered rifle through a wall in the multiracial family's home last April, killing 6-year-old Ashley Mance and wounding her twin, Aleesha, and half-sister, Jailene Jones. He is charged with second-degree murder and two counts of attempted second-degree murder.

Terry Mance, Ashley's father, says in those painful, desperate hours after the shooting, Roten never occurred to him as a suspect. Only after police arrested him did it all come together. He said he is thoroughly convinced they have the right man and is angry "about what happened." But, he says, "I don't hate him anymore."

His words, at first, defy credibility. They sound like the practiced comments of a victim dogged for months, as he has been, by media hungry for something to put inside quote marks or on TV. Mance's loss was so great that hatred for the man he believes caused it would be understandable, perhaps even acceptable.

Sometimes hatred can seem like an alternative to pain, something you can load with your energy until there's no room for pain to hang onto. And no one in the courtroom needed relief from pain more than Mance, who, moments earlier, had wept as a lawyer warned a potential juror that if selected she would be required to look at graphic photos of his injured children.

But, Mance says, his grandmother taught him better than to hate. "My grandmother is a very religious woman," he said during a break in jury selection, "and I share her views."

That does not mean that he doesn't want to see justice done. He has been in court every time the case was discussed and intends to attend every remaining session. "There's nothing more I can do. All I can do is let God do his work."

But in the midst of the greatest tragedy a father could ever be asked to endure, Mance has found a positive.

"I am not as self-centered as I used to be. I am more focused on the child," Mance says, offering further explanation why he doesn't hate Roten.

He said he realizes that Roten didn't start out as a skinhead who could commit the stupid, cowardly act that cost his daughter's life. "Children are diamonds," he said, "but before they're diamonds, they're coal."

He said he has become more conscious of how important it is for children to be influenced by positive forces in their lives and has begun volunteering six days a week at a youth intervention center, trying to offer kids alternatives to violence and the destructive behaviors they too easily fall into.

Mance says Roten missed that somewhere along the line.

As a result, Mance was unable to protect his family from a young man who looked fairly normal, not that different from the rest of us.

He knows now that alarms don't sound before such tragedies happen, just sirens afterwards.

So he's not wasting time looking for alarms -- looking for comfort by finding something different about those whose actions scare us -- he's trying to be the difference that will keep the sirens at bay.

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