Murder victim's daughter protests pending execution

Wednesday, May 21st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ In the last week of his life, Robert Knighton's only friend will visit death row each day to offer comfort and prayer. Then she'll watch as he takes his last breath.

While it's typical for friends and family of condemned inmates to spend time with them in their final days, Sue Norton is perhaps Knighton's most unlikely confidant _ she's the daughter of the man he murdered.

Their friendship began 12 years ago, a year after Knighton killed her adopted father and his wife at their Noble County farm. On the run from a Kansas City, Mo., halfway house, Knighton and his two co-defendants got away from the farm with $61 and a beat-up pickup truck.

The Jan. 8, 1990, murders of Richard and Virginia Denney came during a three-day crime spree that began with the murders and robbery of two men in Clinton, Mo.

Norton began wrestling with the death penalty during Knighton's trial. She says she awoke in the night and had a thought pop into her head: She didn't have to hate him.

The next day, she visited Knighton in jail.

``I went to the jail cell and I looked into his eyes and I said, 'I don't hate you and if you did it, I forgive you,''' Norton said. ``I was crying the whole time and I was shaking like a leaf, but the words just came.''

He told her he would be better off dead ``because then he couldn't hurt anyone else,'' she recalled.

When Norton returned home to Arkansas City, Kan., she wrote Knighton.

``He needed to understand why I had forgiven him,'' she said. ``He wrote back and said, 'I don't understand about your God. I don't understand why you would want to write to me.'''

She says Knighton called her when he made it to Oklahoma death row in McAlester, telling her he was scared and had no one else to call.

For the past 12 years, their relationship has grown through letters and phone calls. This week, Norton is staying in a McAlester hotel so she can spend time with Knighton, 62, before his death.

She testified on his behalf at a clemency hearing Tuesday, but the board voted 4-0 not to spare his life. Next week, Norton will be among those led into the death chamber viewing room as Knighton is killed by injection.

``If your friend had cancer and you knew exactly when they were going to die, you would go there and be with them,'' she said.

Norton, 55, is going to the execution to support Knighton, who she says has no relatives. Her sister, Maudie Nichols, will be there in memory of her biological father, who adopted Norton when she was a toddler.

The relationship Norton has developed with Knighton has strained the one with her sister.

``We just kind of agree to disagree and we don't talk against each other,'' Norton said.

Nichols, of Oxford, Kan., says Knighton should pay for the murders with his life.

``I think anybody that does any kind of crime should have to stand accountable for what they do,'' she said. ``I don't make the laws.''

Knighton served 17 years in a Missouri prison for manslaughter, kidnapping and robbery before going to the halfway house. He had tracked down Coffier Day, a former fellow prison inmate he had a vendetta against, and killed him, said Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Robert Whittaker. He shot Day's father in the neck, wounding him, and held a gun to a 6-year-old girl's head to make her parents give him a ride.

At the halfway house, Knighton befriended Lawrence Lingle Brittain, a teenager on probation for auto theft. They escaped before Brittain was sent to another facility.

The two, along with Knighton's girlfriend Ruth Renee Williams, stole a van in Kansas City and drove to Clinton, where Knighton shot Frankie T. Merrifield and his stepson, Roy E. Donahue, after the group had been drinking together. They left with money, beer and three weapons, including a .38-caliber revolver used to kill the Denneys.

The three fugitives found the Denneys' rented farmhouse as the van was running out of gas.

Norton says her father walked out to the gate to meet them and offered to give them directions. Instead, Knighton went in their house and overpowered the couple, shooting Richard Denney, 62, first and then Virginia Denney, 64.

The attorney general's office argued there was no way Knighton deserved clemency.

``Who knows how many people he's killed?'' Whittaker said. ``We only know of five. He has hurt enough families.''

Norton doesn't deny Knighton hurt her family, but says ``nothing is ever going to bring daddy back.'' Unlike her relatives, she won't feel any relief when Knighton is executed May 27.

``I'm going to feel like a murderer,'' Norton said. ``It feels like I am going to be guilty because I'm part of society.''