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Going into Falicia's hearing, she had little sympathy.
All the victims' families had received letters explaining parts of Falicia's past, as well as her HIV diagnosis . But, according to Sherita, Smokey and Gloria Twitty, all three victims' families had endured drug abuse, violence and degradation. Their personal histories weren't so different from Falicias, and they didn't kill anyone.
That's one thing the survivors pressed Clegg to say in court: Do not be assuaged by a pity story. "She has had a horrific upbringing," Clegg told the judge after he laid out Falicia's crimes, "although that doesn't excuse her."
"What I'm saying here today isn't any kind of justification for her actions," Saari said moments after stepping up to address the court. "There is none."
She then described Falicia's spiraling life: the nightly quotas Michael Berry allegedly set for the young prostitute, the beatings she suffered when she didn't make the quotas, the time she was sprayed with alcohol and set on fire, and the final order Falicia says Mike gave her: Hit a lick or die.
Gloria was unimpressed. She'd flown to Atlanta from Akron for nearly every hearing during the 17-month case, and she, like Sherita, believed any empathy on the families' part would have been naive. Among the women sitting on the courtroom benches that day, there was no room for forgiveness - not yet, anyway.
Gloria, as spokeswoman for the families, took the stand after Saari to quickly dispel any notion that the families had been swayed.
"Falicia Blakely is a cold-blooded killer. She's a serial killer," Gloria told the judge. "She wants to blame everything on Michael Berry. But Michael Berry was not there when my son was killed. ... I heard a lot about what Michael Berry did to her. I didn't hear anything about what Claudell Christmas did to her. I didn't hear anything about what Ray Goodwin did to her. I didn't hear anything about what my son did to her. Because they didn't do anything to her."
Judge Clarence Seeliger then turned to Falicia and said it was up to her whether she wanted to address the families. "Yes," she answered. She walked, a deputy at her side, across the courtroom. Leaning on the stand, she let out a long, shuddering sigh.
"I want to give God the glory and thank Him for giving me the power to apologize to you all," she said, her words slipping into a near-unintelligible mess of tears. "I am so sorry," she managed to eek out. With that, Gloria began to sob uncontrollably. "To the families," Falicia said, "I can only pray. I can only pray you can forgive me."
After the judge read the sentence, he turned to Falicia.
"What has been described to me as your life is almost incomprehensible. I also believe it's true," Seeliger said. "But you've also taken from three men the most valuable thing they owned: their lives."
"After all that's been said today, I believe nothing more can be said."
A few unexpected turns took place after Falicia's plea hearing. For one, Clegg says he's now interested in pursuing charges against Michael Berry for the three murders . "The only evidence we have is the statement of Ms. Blakely that she was told to do this," he points out. "Based on conversations with Ms. [Venus] Hairston," - the woman who'd been arrested with Falicia during both a traffic stop and at Mrs. Winner's - "we don't have the cooperation we need at this juncture."
Venus had posted bond on the Mrs. Winner's armed robbery charge, then bolted. (The murder charge against her was dropped after police learned she didn't accompany Falicia and Pumpkin to either Ray's or Mechi's.) In late February, Venus showed back up and checked into drug rehab .
When Clegg caught up with her, he asked her some questions about Falicia. It turns out Venus was familiar with the abuse Falicia suffered at Mike's hand. "But at least from Venus Hairston's point of view, Falicia didn't seem to be as traumatized as Falicia claims she was," Clegg says. "Obviously, he had some sort of control and ability to manipulate people. But the extent to which these people were afraid of him is unclear."
Clegg says that while his office lacks the evidence needed to take the case to a grand jury, Ameshia "Pumpkin" Ervin's cooperation would be a big help. Because she hasn't pleaded guilty or gone to trial on her own murder charges, she's not talking yet. Until she does, or until some other evidence turns up, Michael Berry will not be investigated for the murders.