Leesa Gray was a 16-year-old girl who found joy in her church youth group, sang in the school chorus and quietly stood up for teenagers who were bullied by their peers, according to friends and family.
“She was pretty happy-go-lucky, always smiling,” recalled Leesa’s mother, Wanda Farris. “That’s what I most remember her by, is her smile. She loved life and she was a good Christian girl.”
On Wednesday, Farris is scheduled to go to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to witness the execution by lethal injection of the man who pleaded guilty to raping and killing her daughter. Thomas Edwin Loden Jr., now 58, has been on death row 21 years.
Loden is among the death row inmates suing Mississippi over the state’s three-drug protocol for executions. A federal judge last week denied a request to block Loden’s execution while the lawsuit, which was filed in 2015, continues. Mississippi’s most recent execution was in November 2021.
During the summer ahead of what should have been Leesa’s senior year of high school, she worked as a waitress at her uncle’s restaurant in north Mississippi’s Itawamba County — a place that serves eggs, grits and biscuits in the morning, and hamburgers, steak and catfish later in the day. On June 22, 2000, she left work after dark and became stranded with a flat tire on a rural road.
Loden, a Marine Corps recruiter with relatives in the area, stopped about 10:45 p.m. According to an interview he later gave investigators, he forced Leesa into his van and spent four hours raping and sexually battering her before strangling and suffocating her.
In September 2021, Loden pleaded guilty to capital murder, rape and four counts of sexual battery. According to court records, Loden told Leesa’s friends and family during his sentencing: “I hope you may have some sense of justice when you leave here today.”
Farris told The Associated Press on Friday that she did not believe Loden’s apology.
“I don’t particularly want to see somebody die,” Farris said. “But I do believe in the death penalty. … I do believe in justice.”
Leesa’s best friend, Lisa Darracott, hopes the execution will bring her closure. Darracott — whose last name was Sheffield before she married — said she thinks every day about Leesa, whom she met the first day of kindergarten.
“Same name, different spelling,” said Darracott, 39. “Our mothers introduced us to distract us from that fact that we didn’t want to be there.”
She described Leesa as both quiet and outgoing, and welcoming to others.
When they were small, they would play at working in an office or keeping house, she said, and “give ourselves married names of whatever boy we had a crush on.” When they were older, they enjoyed dancing to Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine.”
“We had a secret obsession with the Spice Girls,” Darracott said with a laugh.
Leesa loved to do hair and makeup while she was a student at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, and would help Darracott get ready for dances.
Farris said Leesa had a job babysitting two young boys and loved taking part in the youth group at Bethel Baptist Church. She described her daughter as “a good kid.”
“She wasn’t perfect, now, mind you,” Farris said. “But she strived to do right.”
Farris said her daughter aspired to become an elementary school teacher.
Farris said she forgave her daughter’s killer years ago. A feeling came over her, and she believes it was the Lord speaking to her heart.
“I said, ‘I forgive you, Eddie Loden,’” Farris said. “I just felt at peace about it, but I started crying. I felt like I was betraying Leesa.”
She called her pastor, who assured her that Leesa would want her to forgive Loden.
Like Darracott, Farris hopes the execution will help her move on — but not forget.
“You just have this hanging over your head all these years,” Farris said. “Leesa is always going to be in my heart and my mind.”
More of AP’s coverage of executions can be found at https://apnews.com/hub/executions