If you’ve lived in Houston long enough, this story will bring back a flood of memories and emotions.
Randy Ertman, a house painter who became a blunt-spoken, combative advocate for crime victims’ rights after his daughter and another teen were raped and murdered in a northwest Houston park, died Monday of lung cancer.
In the early 1990s, Ertman became a familiar figure to Houstonians as he appeared in news photos confronting relatives of his daughter’s killers, who had suggested the victims’ families bore some responsibility for the girls’ deaths.
Ertman’s advocacy led to changes in state law, allowing crime victims’ families to direct comments to convicted offenders in the courtroom and permitting relatives of homicide victims to witness executions.
Ertman was catapulted into his advocacy role by the June 24, 1993, murders of his 14-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and her 16-year-old friend, Elizabeth Pena. The teens were killed in T.C. Jester Park after they blundered into a nighttime gang initiation rite as they made their way home from a nearby party.
Six gang members were convicted in the crime – an episode so horrendous that it deeply shocked a city that routinely shrugged off acts of violence.
Three of the killers – Derrick O’Brien, 31; Jose Medellin, 33; and Peter Cantu, 35 – have been executed. Two others are serving life sentences; a sixth was given a 40-year sentence.
Ertman, 61, died one day after the anniversary of Cantu’s 2010 execution.
The murders of Jennifer Ertman and Jennifer Pena were just horrible. I have no connection to either family, it’s been almost 25 years, and I still can’t read about them without getting worked up. As you know, I have a lot of problems with the death penalty. Racial disparities, bad forensics, unreliable eyewitnesses, coerced confessions, an appellate system that cares far more about “getting a result” than getting that result right, the list of reasons to oppose the death penalty goes on and on. And yet, while I think our system of justice would be just fine without a death penalty, I can’t quite bring myself to call for its abolition. I have always felt, and I continue to feel, that there are some crimes and some criminals for which it is the appropriate response. I would not have been able to tell Randy Ertman, or a member of the Pena family, that the killers of their daughters deserved to have their lives spared. Maybe that’s a failing on my part, but if it is, I accept it. Rest in peace, Randy Ertman. I wish the same peace to your family and the Pena family as well. Doug Miller, who has a nice tribute to Randy Ertman on his Facebook page, has more.