Community reacts to Harrell's life sentence

Many wanted admitted killer to receive death penalty


CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – Jeff Norris lived across the street from Somer's home her whole life and watched the 7-year-old grow up. He searched for her when she went missing and mourned her when she was found dead in a Georgia landfill.

Jarred Harrell's guilty plea and life sentence Friday was the final step in the legal process of justice for Somer, but for Norris, it will never be over.

"Knowing what (Somer's mother) Diena (Thompson)'s been through and what this has put her family through, it's just, it broke my heart for her because it's not justice," said Norris, hoping Harrell would receive the death penalty.

He's not alone in that sentiment. Many people who live in the Orange Park neighborhood think Harrell should have faced the death penalty. None of them wanted the family to suffer any more than they already have, but people like Sandra Dodds say they did want to see Harrell suffer.

"I don't think it's the right thing," Dodds said of the decision to accept the plea agreement. "I mean, he didn't give Somer a chance. She didn't have a choice."

Dodds hung purple and white ribbons to show her support for the family -- purple because it was Somer's favorite color and white, Dodds said, because Somer is an angel.

"I'm not the judge. I'm just a parent, and I can just imagine what she's feeling right now," Dodds said.

Those from all walks of life came together to support the Thompson family after that dreadful October 2009 day Somer's body was found, including some men who some may call tough guys. Many of them cried in court at the hearing.

"I thought he was a big coward," Bobby Ingram said of Harrell.

Ingram, of the band Molly Hatchet, has been behind the family, putting on benefit concerts over the last couple of years.

"I don't ever see a positive coming out of this, even though today was, I guess, a courtroom victory," Ingram said.

He rode to court with Thompson's parents. He said he promised her he would stick by her side until the end, and he said he thinks he's kept his promise. He also said he's become very emotionally involved.

"You know, he's a predator, he planned this or whatever he did," Ingram said.

He said he's worked with Thompson to create the Somer Foundation to raise awareness about sexual predators or pedophiles.

"When Diena was so strong and powerful and delivered such a statement, and he didn't even look up. That's pathetic and that's a coward," Ingram said.

Besides Ingram, some bikers who have supported Somer's family, riding around with purple ribbons, said they're disgusted by the case.

"I don't feel it's right that this guy's getting the deal," Keystone biker David Blackwelder said. "What kind of deal did Somer get? She didn't get no deal."

"As far as Diena is concerned, I just admire her so much. She's such a strong woman," said Cliff Lamson, a member of Highway to Heaven Church.

Lamson said he hopes Friday's proceedings bring some closure to the family.

"I feel that, you know, whatever he gets here on Earth, it's not going to be compared to anything," Lamson said. "God's going to judge him."

One group, Bikers Against Child Abuse, has been supporting the family since October 2009 by riding for the cause.

"Today was about the family," one biker said. "Sad is not even a word to describe it, but it's over."

Later this month, the group plans to have another event to continue to raise awareness.

Meanwhile, parents of children at Somer's school, Grove Park Elementary, said a weight has been lifted off their shoulders now that Somer's killer has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

"Very relieved. It's so difficult riding through the neighborhood every day, not knowing," parent Chautauqua Smith said. "I'm very relieved."

The school and the neighborhood has been with the Thompsons every step of the way. They helped search for Somer, held vigils before and after her body was found. They rallied around her family as the suspected killer was caught.

"It was surreal," school bus driver Victoria Ritch said. "All I kept thinking was we were here in the neighborhood. Could we have seen something?"

Ritch remembers when Somer went missing like it was yesterday. She remembers the neighbors holding out hope, then crying when that gruesome discovery was made. She weighed in on Friday's developments.

"I don't think it's fair that Somer's not alive," Ritch said. "Why should he get to live in prison? He should get the death penalty."

"I think he should serve time," school aid Janice Coulter said. "I think they get more punishment that way than they do by just injecting them with something."

His punishment is up for debate, but what people at the school are certain of is the school and neighborhood will never be the same.

"It's always good whenever you can close a book on something bad like this," Ritch said. "I think it makes people more aware to pay a little more attention to the kids who are here in the neighborhood."

"You always see a lot of people walking dogs and around, just keeping an eye on the children," Smith said. "It's good to see the community pulling together like that."

Friday night, family and friends held a candlelight vigil and sang "You Are My Sunshine," Somer's favorite song.