Each year, the parents of a woman killed by her ex-boyfriend have watched with frustration as the man’s sentence shrunk from 60 years to 20 and then to five.
Don and Sharon Strasser’s 26-year-old daughter Marva Diana Rhea was killed in December 2006 after her boyfriend at the time reportedly strangled her to death. And now that the boyfriend, Justin Suits, was released into a transition program Sept. 10 due to good time credits and other programs, Don and Sharon want to change the amount of credit violent offenders can receive.
The Strassers, longtime Logansport residents, had all of Rhea’s Christmas gifts wrapped when they received a phone call on Dec. 24, 2006, telling them that their daughter had been killed at the home she shared with Suits and her three-month-old son in Selma.
“We were making plans to come over there Christmas Day,” Sharon said. “But that wasn’t going to happen.”
Rather than facing the initial 60-year proposed sentence for murder, Suits pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a sentence of 20 years.
Up until the sentencing, Don and Sharon believed Suits would receive the full sentence for murder.
“They kept saying it was going to be a murder charge, and they were going for the full 60 years,” Don said.
But the Strassers received a call from the prosecutor one early morning of September 2007, and he told them he was going to accept the plea agreement and that he hoped they would speak in favor of it at the sentencing hearing that afternoon. The Strassers reacted with shock and a resounding answer of “no.”
“I felt like I got slapped in the face,” Don said.
They both spoke against the abbreviated sentence and new charge at the hearing, arguing that they’d lost their only daughter and that her son, who was three months old at the time of her murder, no longer had a mother.
Sharon said they had hoped for the longer sentence, with at least 20 to 30 years of the sentence years spent in jail, so that Jackson, Marve’s son, would not be influenced by his father.
“By that time Jackson would be grown at least, and he wouldn’t have a lot of influence on him,” Sharon said.
Mark McKinney, the Delaware County Prosecutor at the time, could not be reached for comment. He told The Star Press that the agreement was fair and that a jury trial would have turned up the same result.
The Strassers were disappointed, but still thankful that Suits would spend at least a decade in jail.
“Still then we figured at least 10 years he was going to serve,” Don said.
That sentence was initially cut down as Suits entered prison with 253 days of credit and then earned further good behavior credit. Then, Suits was granted one year off of his sentence for earning an associate’s degree in 2010. A further 180 days were taken off in 2011 for undergoing substance abuse counseling and then 183 days for another state-based program. Finally, almost two years were taken off for a Bachelor’s degree he earned in business management.
The Strassers had previous personal experience with shortened sentences. Don’s sister, along with her husband, child and unborn child, were killed in 1972 when they were driving near Logansport and were hit by a drunk driver. Because of a plea agreement, the driver received a fine instead of a jail sentence.
Suits’ release into the transition program earlier this month prompted Don to take action. He started a petition along with another man who saw sister’s murderer serve a shortened sentenced. The petition asks state lawmakers to limit the amount of good time credit violent offenders can receive off of their sentences.
“I think it’s time the state looks at what is happening with the victims or the victim’s family,” Don said.
With almost 500 signatures both online and on paper, Don said he’s hoping to reach out to Indiana residents as well as politicians so that a state bill can be created.
“All we’re trying to do is make the legislators aware of it,” Don said.
As they try to spark a change in law, Sharon said they’re still dealing with aftermath of Rhea’s murder.
The Strassers have told Jackson, who is now 6 yearsold, that his mother has died. But Sharon, who says Jackson loves his father, says she doesn’t want to be the person to tell him about his father’s involvement.
Don says he hopes the law will help other families who have seen a murder charge reduced to a shorter sentence.
“We’ve seen it twice,” Don said. “No more.”