The Tijuana-San Diego life of man executed in Virginia

Mario's story

'Mexican Hit Man Laughs, Forgives Before Execution," headlines read the morning after the State of Virginia killed 26-year-old Mario Benjamin Murphy.

"It's a good day to die," he was reported as saying when strapped to a gurney on Wednesday, September 17, at 9:00 p.m. at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia. Seconds before his death by lethal injection, Mario laughed and said to his executioners, "I forgive you all. I hope God does, too."

Wire service stories mentioned only briefly, if they mentioned it at all, the candlelight vigil outside the prison where Silvia Murphy, Mario's mother, stood and waited. She'd waited since 3:00 p.m. after guards ordered her and her daughter Natalia off prison property. They'd had only a two-hour visit with Mario before he died.

"My God, my God," Silvia Murphy remembers. "My poor baby."

Speaking from her home in Virginia Beach, where she's lived since 1982, her voice is soft. Her Mexican accent has given way to a Southern one.

"It was the most difficult thing. My baby. It was the first time in six years that I was able to be near him, to touch him, to hold him. I can't explain to you what that's like, being a mother, and being able to hold my son for the first time in six years just a short time before he dies. I knew that the visit was going to end. There was nothing I could do. I wanted the visit to last forever. There was nothing I could do to make it last forever. The clock kept moving. I knew the visit would end and he would turn and walk away and I would never, never see my son again."

Silvia Murphy prays to God for strength. There are times when she feels she can no longer bear the pain, although she's had a great deal of practice bearing pain. In the early 1960s, when she was 11, she and her mother and two older sisters moved from Guadalajara to Tijuana. They lived in Colonia del Rio, in the hills southeast of downtown, not far from the airport. When she was 12 years old, her mother's live-in boyfriend raped her. Silvia told no one. She waited. When she was 16 years old and had finished sixth grade, she left Tijuana to work cleaning house for her godmother in Fallbrook.

In 1969 Silvia got a job cleaning house and babysitting for a man who was getting divorced. He was Portuguese and worked as a mechanic in Solana Beach. He and Silvia fell in love, she says, and he was Mario's father.

"It was a mess," she remembers. "His ex-wife found out. It was terrible. Not to mention my family's reaction. But there I was, a young girl, pregnant. What could I do? I had to go home, back to Tijuana. I never told Mario about his biological father."

Mario was born at Clinica de Jesus near Guererro Park in Tijuana. He was a good and quiet baby, but the atmosphere at home was not so quiet. Silvia hadn't gotten along with her mother since her mother's boyfriend had raped her. She'd kept quiet about it as long as she could, and one day she confronted her mother with what had happened. Her mother didn't believe her. Her mother said she was lying. They argued. Her mother told her to get out.

Silvia left Tijuana with four-month-old Mario. She found a job in Long Beach, caring for a mentally disabled 20-year-old girl. After a few months Mario's father showed up saying he was still trying to work things out with his wife. He wanted to get back together with Silvia. He visited her several times, played with his son, and one day disappeared. Not long after, Silvia met an American man named Jerry. He was so moved by her story that he offered to marry her so she could become an American citizen. On November 24, 1972, they drove down to Coronado, where they were married by a justice of the peace. Silvia was pregnant again.

"To this day I still don't know if Mario's father or Jerry was Natalia's father. It didn't matter. I was married. It maybe wasn't a marriage for love, but I was married. I moved back to Tijuana to live with my family until my immigration papers were sorted out. It took a long time. My papers finally came through in 1974, and I and my babies moved from Tijuana to National City. By that time, Jerry and I had gone our separate ways. He had his own problems to deal with. So I moved in with a friend who was a single mom with five kids of her own. There I was with my two kids. We did our best, trying to raise all these kids together, trying to make a living. I got a job working as a housekeeper at the Holiday Inn. A little later I got a better job as a housekeeper at the Sheraton. I could finally afford to move out. We moved to Linda Vista into an apartment of our own. We even had a live-in babysitter.

"Mario started school there at Kit Carson Elementary. He was a wonderful child. A very happy child. He loved that cartoon - Rocky and Bullwinkle. He wouldn't miss that cartoon for anything in the world. And he had to have all the toys. He loved that squirrel Rocky. He had his favorite Rocky the squirrel doll, and he wouldn't go anywhere without it.

In Linda Vista Silvia met an African-American Navy pipe-fitter named Patrick Murphy. She liked him.

"The thing that drew me to him most was how good he was with my kids. He was so gentle with him. I thought he would make a good father. So I divorced Jerry in 1977, and on November 24, 1979, I married Patrick at a little chapel in Spring Valley. Things were good. And then in 1982 Patrick got transferred to Virginia Beach and things started to change very quickly.

"Patrick was gone a lot. He'd be home two months, then he'd be out at sea for six. This went on and on, and basically I was having to play a mother-father role for my children. It was difficult. We were new to the area, didn't know how to get around. There were tensions at home. And then, when Mario was 12, when he started into puberty, he started to change.

"He'd always been a shy, quiet child. He was slow to make friends, but when he made them he was very close with them. He was affectionate. And then it all changed. He became more and more withdrawn. He kept to himself. He wouldn't talk. His teachers at school noticed the change, and they suggested our family go to counseling. But Mario wouldn't open up. He wouldn't talk. So we tried sending him to therapy alone. But he still wouldn't talk. The counselors couldn't get him to talk about what was bothering him.

"I've laid awake many nights now since he died, thinking about that time. It is the hardest thing. I think maybe I should have tried harder. I know now what was probably bothering him. Why he had all that anger and hurt locked up inside him. Since he died, members of my family told me something. They told me that when Mario was little, when I sometimes went to Tijuana to visit my family, and I'd leave him with them for a little while, the same man who raped me sexually abused Mario.

"I can't go back and change that. But I understand now why he was so quiet. I just wish I'd tried harder to get him into counseling. He just refused to go. He became more rebellious, wouldn't listen to me or his father. He started telling Patrick, 'Don't tell me what to do. You're not my real father.'

"When he was 16 he met this girl. I didn't care for her or her family. Somehow Mario and this girl decided they were going to get married. When I told them I was opposed to it, they ran off. The girl's family helped them run off down to Amarillo, Texas. I guess it was at this time that Mario really started looking for his father. He thought Jerry was his father, and he somehow got in touch with him in San Diego. But Jerry was having problems of his own and couldn't help. He told Mario he couldn't help him. Mario was rejected by the man who he thought was his father.

"I finally tracked Mario down in Amarillo and talked to him. I convinced him to come home. Maybe I should have let him be.

"When he got home, things got worse. He started hanging out with people I maybe didn't agree with. Things between me and Patrick were bad. One day, Patrick had enough of the whole situation and walked away. Mario started acting real nasty to me, real mean. He had no respect for me, back-talked to me in front of his friends. I couldn't take it anymore. I told him that if he didn't straighten up, he'd have to move out. He did. Moved in with friends. That's when I lost him the first time. And after that I started losing him again and again, a little bit more each time until I lost him for good the night he died."

Mario moved out in February 1991. On July 29, 1991, he and two accomplices beat a Navy cook to death with a steel pipe while he slept. The cook's pregnant wife had promised to pay Mario $5000 for the killing. She told Mario that her husband beat and raped her and had threatened to cut the baby out of her stomach. Minutes after the murder, she rolled around in her husband's blood to make it look as if she had lain beside him during the attack. She told police that burglars had killed her husband. One week later she married another man.

In September 1991, police arrested Mario, his two teenage accomplices, the wife, and her new husband. Of the six defendants, only Mario and the wife were charged with first-degree murder. She did not confess and received a sentence of life plus 20 years. Mario confessed, and although he had no prior record and was only 19 years old at the time of the murder, he received a sentence of death by lethal injection.

"I could not believe it when I stood there in the courtroom that day when the judge announced the sentence," Silvia remembers. "It was like a black cloud came down around me. My whole world ended. I managed to get up and walk outside the courtroom. I made it a little ways. This big black cloud just came down around me. I passed out."

Silvia spent $3000 on Mario's defense. It was the most she could afford from what she earned cleaning houses. She has never maintained his innocence but has all along said his sentence was unfair. Other people agreed. As Mario's case wound through the appeals process, the Mexican government protested that Virginia authorities had violated an international treaty signed by the U.S. in 1963. The treaty provided that, if arrested, all foreign nationals be allowed to contact their embassy. Virginia authorities never notified Mario, a Mexican citizen, of this right. If the Mexican government had only known about his arrest, Mexican diplomats argued, they could have provided for a better defense of Mario's case. Even conservative Senator Jesse Helms agreed. As head of the Foreign Relations Committee, he wrote to Virginia Governor George Allen, asking for clemency. At one point the Mexican government guaranteed a cell for Mario in a Mexican prison if Governor Allen would commute Mario's sentence to life without parole. Governor Allen was unswayed. He denied Mario clemency, saying that the State of Virginia had every right to deal as it saw fit with crimes committed within its borders.

A little after 3:00 p.m., September 17, Silvia Murphy hugged Mario for the last time. He kissed her face and told her that he loved her. He turned, embraced his sister Natalia, and told her she had to be strong.

"And then," Silvia says, "he walked away. I watched him turn and walk away. It was the hardest thing. I'd lost him a little when he was 12 and got so quiet. I lost him more when he moved out. I lost him more when he was arrested. A little more when he was convicted. A little more when he was sentenced. A little more when they set the date for the execution. A little more when the governor denied him clemency. And through all that I'd managed to hold onto a little bit of hope.

"The guards told us we had to leave immediately. We had to be off prison property. They wouldn't even let us wait in the parking lot. I wanted so bad to be as close as possible to him when he died. But they wouldn't even let us wait in the parking lot. So we drove out and just parked by the side of the road. It's in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of the woods. We just sat there and waited.

"Around 7:30 people started driving up. Complete strangers who'd heard about Mario's case and wanted to support me. Then some people came from the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. That meant a lot to me. Someone brought some candles and we just stood there and waited.

"At 8:00, Father James Griffin came out of the prison to talk with me. He's a priest from our church in Virginia Beach. He'd spent a lot of time with Mario over the past six years. He helped Mario maintain his faith because sometimes, you know, in prison it was hard and Mario started doubting his faith in God. Father Griffin was with Mario before the execution. He came out at 8:00 to tell me that the governor had denied clemency for the last time. He went back in to be with Mario.

"That was the longest hour of my life.

"A little after 9:00, maybe around 9:15, Father Griffin came out and told me Mario was dead. I wanted to see his body, but they wouldn't let me. They sent his body to Richmond for an autopsy immediately after the execution.

"He was cremated. I just found his Bullwinkle toys the other day. I could hardly stand it. That Rocky doll he loved. When we visited him the last time, we talked some about when he was a little boy. It was so hard because I was trying to be strong. My daughter and I promised each other we weren't going to break down in front of him.

"But I break down now. Most days I can't leave the house. I'm getting some counseling because I don't think this is something I can handle on my own. I pray a lot. I pray to the Lord and ask Him for strength. I need strength.

"I guess they sent Mario's ashes out to San Diego to his biological father. His biological father had heard about his case and contacted him in prison. But he never came to visit. Not once. Not even after he knew Mario was going to be executed.

"But Mario wanted his ashes sent to his biological father. This man he'd never really met. This man he didn't remember. This man who never visited him in prison. He wanted a father so bad. He wanted his ashes sent to the father he never had."

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