Survivors honor murder victims at state Capitol

National day of remembrance marked at state Capitol steps

Regina Wagster, left, and La'nya Smith place photos of loved ones lost to acts of violence on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023 during the annual National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims event hosted by the Parents of Murdered Children advocacy organization. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Regina Wagster, left, and La'nya Smith place photos of loved ones lost to acts of violence on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023 during the annual National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims event hosted by the Parents of Murdered Children advocacy organization. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

More than 70 framed photos of local murder victims lined the steps of the state Capitol on Sunday at the 16th annual National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims.

The Central Arkansas chapter of Parents of Murdered Children hosted the event, joined by Mothers of Black Sons Standing Against Death, Joe Profiri, Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Will Jones, a Pulaski County prosecuting attorney.

In 2007, Congress designated Sept. 25 as a day of remembrance to commemorate the day that Lisa Hullinger, a 19-year-old from Cincinnati, was murdered while studying abroad in Germany. Her parents, Robert and Charlotte Hullinger, started Parents of Murdered Children following her death in 1978.

Belinda Harris-Ritter, an attorney in Maumelle and a leader in the organization, shared her personal experience of losing her father and stepmother to "senseless gun violence" in 1981.

Harris-Ritter said their killer had shot and injured a 14-year-old girl the year before.

"He did no time for that, he was just supposed to pay her medical bills," Harris-Ritter said. "He did not. When he found out that he was going to have to go to jail, he became angry with the world and on his way into Mountain View, he turned into our driveway instead of going into town."

The killer refused to leave and crawled through the woods to wait outside behind bushes. When her father came back out to feed their dog, he was shot in the back.

Her stepmother ran outside because she heard the gunshot, and the killer shot her as she knelt over her husband's body.

"[The killer] then went in the house, wrecked the inside of it, terrifying my three sisters who were home, who were 2, 5 and 7 [years old]," Harris-Ritter recalled. "He took my father's pistol that my father's men gave him when he retired from being a military officer for over 30 years. The next day, he shot another man, who fortunately survived and called the police."

Harris-Ritter described how her family got justice.

"He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty, and he got life without the possibility of parole," Harris-Ritter said. "Even though he is in prison, he applies for clemency whenever he can, and in fact, I had to go to court to get a permanent injunction to stop him from writing to me."

She recognized that her family was not alone in their experience of murder and invited other survivors to share.

Wyndolyn Adams, chapter leader for Parents of Murdered Children, lost her eldest son, Trevarland Smith, when he was 34 years old.

Smith and Rodney Scaife, who was also from Little Rock, were murdered by Joshua Lasley in June of 2018 on the side of the highway on Arkansas 15 in Tucker.

Lasley was on parole with 10 felony convictions and had absconded supervision at the time, Arkansas Community Correction reported.

"I was a young mother and it just felt like, that was my friend, we grew up together," Adams said. "My life, the life of my children, was changed forever. We're from a small community in Waseca and to see the impact that it has had, it is having, on communities ... it affects the health of a community."

Due to the covid-19 pandemic, it took five years for her family to see justice, she added.

"The legal process can be as overwhelming as the event itself," Adams recalled. "It was almost like every six months, the family was taking off [work] getting ready, and it's traumatic. People say, 'oh, well, now you have closure.' There's never closure, because it's not gonna bring back good love here. It's not gonna bring Trevarland back. But it does allow us to start healing and not keep opening that wound."

Parents of Murdered Children has been a "lifesaver" for her, she explained, because other survivors of murdered loved ones understand exactly what she's going through.

"When you're sitting in a support group, when you're sitting on a phone call, with others that are experiencing the very same thing, you don't feel like you can't cry," Adams explained. "You don't feel like you can't say certain things, because when you're talking to others, sometimes there's the sense of, 'well, you ought to be over that' or 'you ought to be past that' ... I mean, I'm spiritual. I'm a Christian. I'm still a mother. I'm still human. I still miss my loved one."

Advocates at the Central Arkansas chapter will pick up the phone 24/7 for members in need of support, she added.

"I'm just so very thankful for this day, to be able to share with everyone," Adams said. "This is my child, this is my baby ... This is real. This is very real, and for parents to be able to, mothers, to share their story. You don't always get that opportunity. I'm just thankful that everyone has that chance to do that."

Joe Profiri, Secretary of the Department of Corrections, shared that he is also a survivor of a loved one lost to violence.

He said that the families behind the statistics of murder matter and have affected his career in justice the most.

Profiri said that the Protect Arkansas Act will give some families peace of mind to know that murderers who are convicted in Arkansas after the law goes into effect will be ineligible for parole.

Will Jones, a Pulaski County prosecuting attorney, agreed and said families and juries have had a hard time understanding how criminals who commit felonies can earn release credits while serving their sentence and get out early on parole.

"A lot of times, people hear that and they're like, wait a minute, if someone gets 30 years, they're not gonna have to serve 30 years, but now that will be the case going forward."

The Protect Arkansas Act goes into effect Jan. 1, 2025.

"We know that the criminal justice system is imperfect to be able to get them closure," Jones said. "We just try to do what we can, and we just want to be here to support the real human tragedy that these guys live every day; and the thing that I'm most impressed with, in over 20 years of dealing with families like this, is that they all have so much grace. Going through so much tragedy and heartbreak and loss, but they still carry themselves with so much grace."

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct information given by Belinda Harris-Ritter about the shooting of a 14-year-old girl.