On the night of Jan. 6, 1999, Sonya Speights sat down to do a jigsaw puzzle. As the 29-year-old teacher’s aide worked in the dining room of the Port St. John, Florida, home she shared with her boyfriend and his two children, she was shot four times with a 9 mm semiautomatic gun.
The gun belonged to her boyfriend. The shots were fired by his children.
“When you went to the crime scene you could see bullet holes everywhere,” attorney Tony Hernandez III, who was briefly assigned to represent 12-year-old Curtis Fairchild Jones and 13-year-old Catherine Nicole Jones, told BuzzFeed News. “You know how they say you don’t take the dog for a walk, it walks you? Well, it was as if the gun was shooting the kid. There were bullet holes everywhere.”
The children dragged Speights’ body through the house to a bathtub, making a crude effort to clean up the trail of blood in the carpet using some bleach. They then ran to a friend’s house to claim they had shot Speights by accident, before eventually fleeing into nearby woodland where police found them the next morning.
In jail for the murder since 1999, Curtis is set to be released Tuesday. His sister will walk free on Saturday. The pair, who were at the time the youngest murderers convicted as adults in the United States, will spend the rest of their lives on probation.
But following reports that the children were being horrifically sexually and physically abused, the entire official narrative behind the killing has been thrown into question — and raised doubts about whether an injustice occurred.
“This is easily a failure of justice,” Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst with the Sentencing Project advocacy group, told BuzzFeed News. “It seems as though even a cursory review of their lives would have shown that these kids were really in a very troubled situation.”
During interviews with police, the children were said to have quickly confessed to plotting to kill Speights because they were jealous that she was consuming their father’s attention.
“It wasn’t like we did a grueling, nine-hour interview,” Brevard County Sheriff's Office's Maj. Tod Goodyear, who investigated the case as part of the homicide squad, told BuzzFeed News. “What they told us during the interviews was they were jealous of the attention their father was giving this woman. He was not spending time with them as he used to. They were pretty matter of fact they wanted to get rid of her.”
“The girl, she was very intelligent, a very smart girl for her age,” Goodyear said. “She wasn’t really emotional. She lacked empathy. She was very matter-of-fact. She was the one who came up with the plan, and they carried it out very matter-of-factly.”
Over the protests of relatives of both the children and the victim, the two juveniles were funneled into the adult criminal justice system. A grand jury indicted the children on first-degree murder charges weeks later.
“These are not kids without a clue,” then–State Attorney Norm Wolfinger told reporters of what authorities said was a calculated, premeditated plot. “They knew right from wrong. They committed a murder.”
Without a full trial ever occurring, without evidence ever being presented, without witnesses ever testifying, the children accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. They were sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Before leaving court, Curtis reportedly asked his lawyer if he could take his Nintendo with him to jail.
“It was pushed through fast,” Hernandez said. “Before you know it, the kids were taken away. The youngest convicted murderer in U.S. history got very little media, if any. Now he’s getting out and everyone wants to talk about it.”
Although their original incarceration largely went unnoticed on the national stage, the freedom of the young convicted killers has been marked by headlines around the country. The sudden media interest has also focused attention on exactly what led up to the killing.
Ten years after the children were locked up, records reviewed by Florida Today in 2009 revealed that Curtis and Catherine had endured a tortured home life marked by several incidents of physical and sexual violence. Indeed, just months before the killing, child welfare officers found signs the children were being sexually abused by a relative of their father who was staying with the family at the time of the killings.
Around 1994, Curtis, who had to share a bed with the man, had complained during a visit to his mother in Kansas that the family member was fondling him. According to the records reviewed by Florida Today, investigators with the sheriff’s department closed their report after Curtis later changed his story and said that he had lied. Two years later, in 1996, officials opened an investigation into a bruised and swollen eye injury Curtis had suffered.
A third investigation began in September 1998, just months before the murder, after Catherine ran away from home and a teacher at her school raised concerns she was being sexually assaulted, Florida Today reported. Records reviewed by the newspaper showed child welfare investigators found “some indicators” that Catherine was being sexually abused.
"He did everything but penetration," she told Florida Today in 2009, some 10 years after the shooting. "It wasn't rape, but it was touching and fondling and oral sex. He would make me perform oral sex to the point where I would throw up."
She said she tried to tell her father of the abuse, but "he didn't believe me at that time, and it felt like he was taking sides, like he chose his [relative] over me," she told Florida Today. "I expected him to be at the point where he would want to kill him."
Catherine told the newspaper her father intimidated her into lying to officials and denying the abuse had occurred. As they closed the case report, investigators reportedly warned the children’s father that his relative should not be living with the family — because he was a convicted pedophile. As Florida Today reported, in addition to having spent six years in prison for robbery, the children’s alleged abuser had been convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl in 1993.
A few days after welfare officers closed their investigation, Catherine was showering when she said the family member entered the bathroom, pulled back the curtain, and began masturbating. She huddled in the corner and sobbed.
There was one person who believed her, though: Curtis. He told Catherine he had been abused by the same man.
Catherine later revealed she and her brother had concocted a desperate plot to kill their alleged abuser and end their torment. Angry that their cries for help were going unheeded, the children decided that that their father and Speights needed to also be killed for, as the kids perceived it, allowing the abuse to occur.
After their father briefly left the house on Jan. 6, 1999, and with their alleged abuser due home later that evening, the children put their plan into action. But after Curtis fired the shots that killed Speights, Catherine said the plan went awry.
“He had an emotional breakdown because once again this is reality now. This isn’t some idea that’s in our head any more. This is reality,” Catherine told Florida Today. “And he freaked out. He had an emotional breakdown and I tried to calm him down and we ended up leaving the house.”
After their capture, both police and the children’s attorneys told BuzzFeed News, Curtis and Catherine did not inform them of the abuse the pair had suffered. Maj. Goodyear said that although authorities were aware of the previous welfare investigations that had occurred, they noted that the reports were closed without any definitive evidence.
Curtis’s lawyer, Alan Landman, said he was shocked when he first laid eyes on his client. “He looked like a baby!” he wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. Landman said Curtis “never really communicated with [him] to any substantive degree throughout [his] entire representation” and definitely did not disclose the abuse, which Landman said he only learned of in recent years in media reports.
“Every time I read an article I wondered why neither he, nor to my knowledge his sister, ever disclosed any of this to their attorneys,” Landman said. “It's almost like they had a ‘pact of silence’ and for some reason they thought that would help them.”
The lawyer who represented Catherine, Kepler Funk, did not return a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Landman said that had he been aware of the abuse, he would have explored it as an avenue for a possible defense or mitigating factor in sentencing. “It is somewhat haunting to me that there was world of horrors that this child was growing up in that was never explored,” he said.
Goodyear told BuzzFeed News that even if the children were abused, it was no excuse for killing Speights. “There are a lot of people who have been abused and didn’t do something like this,” he said. “At some point you have to take responsibility for your actions.”
Indeed, in her 2009 interview with Florida Today, Catherine expressed regret for killing Speights, saying that if the children had thought more they would have focused their plot solely on their alleged abuser. However, she said she had been desperate and was even relieved to find herself in prison. “At one point I was just so happy to be away," she told Florida Today. "I know that sounds, like, really messed up, but there was a point where I was just away from all that, and I was by myself and I was safe."
BuzzFeed News contacted Speights’ two daughters, Inez and Jessica Coleman, but they did not respond to a request for comment for this story. However, in an interview with Florida Today in January, the pair said their mother showed Curtis and Catherine nothing but love.
"I'm not saying that they weren't abused, and if they were I'm sorry they had to go through that, but my mother was not the abuser, so why kill her?" Inez asked.
Jessica, who graduated college in December, told the newspaper she has forgiven her mother’s killers.
“Even though they have never reached out to me or my sister to apologize, even though they act as if they have no remorse, even though they might not care how I feel, I still forgive them,” she said.
Goodyear said it was appropriate for the children to be charged as adults because of the nature of their crime, which he said deserved a longer sentence than the juvenile system would permit. “It was a very adult crime,” he said. “A lot of planning went into it. They fully expected to get away with it.”
But Nellis, with the Sentencing Project, said the children should have been kept out of the adult system. She said if their past abuse was investigated more thoroughly it could have been used as a mitigating factor. “It doesn’t excuse what happened,” she said, “but it certainly helps to explain it.”
Tony Hernandez, who briefly represented the children before they were reassigned to Funk and Landman, was also critical of what he said was the “draconian decision” to treat the juveniles as adults and “incarcerate them and throw away the key.”
“Where was the compassion for the children?” Hernandez said. “Here we are now. The experiment’s over. Are the kids any better now?”
BuzzFeed News contacted Catherine and Curtis’s current attorney, Florida State University law professor Paolo Annino, but he turned down an interview request at the behest of his clients.
Curtis’s sentence was extended by 318 days after he escaped from his juvenile detention facility in 2004 when a hurricane knocked down an outer fence. He was caught the next day. He now leaves prison as an ordained minister with two tattoos. He has never spoken with the press.
After her interview with Florida Today in 2009, Catherine received a letter from a Navy officer who read her story. The two became pen pals, fell in love, and married in the chapel at Catherine’s prison in 2013.
She hasn’t been able to write to her brother in years, because of rules barring co-defendants from contacting one another. She told the newspaper in a 2014 letter that she was fearful of being released into a “foreign society.”
"Of course there are fears, mainly because there's so much I must learn to function like a normal person: how to drive; fill out job applications; text; dress for a job interview; build my credit; obtain life, dental, medical insurance. I'm completely clueless,” she wrote.
“The idea of being 30 and completely dependent on others to teach me how to do these basic things isn't appealing. I'll leave prison just as clueless as I was at 13."
Nellis said she hoped Curtis and Catherine would get by in the outside world and not fall into the pattern of recidivism that plagues other juvenile offenders who have spent years behind bars.
“These two characters are very resilient,” she said. "They’ve been through hell and are probably very strong. If they can endure what they’ve already endured, the child abuse and 18 years in prison, I think they’re going to be OK.”
But, she said, the current concern over their futures is tragically ironic. “The time to be concerned for their welfare was 18 years ago,” she said.
David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.
Contact David Mack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.