Murder Victim’s Children Still Seeking Justice

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following letter was authored by Michelle Liles, daughter of Debbie Liles who was found brutally beaten and murdered in her Jacksonville home in March 2017. Her father, Michael Liles, was the executive director of the Justice Coalition, a Jacksonville nonprofit victims’ services center. Already a victim advocate before Debbie’s tragic death, Michael channeled his grief and heartbreak into his quest to find justice for Debbie and his fierce advocacy of Amendment 6/Marsy’s Law for Florida. Several weeks ago, Michael unexpectedly passed away.   

When my Dad died suddenly a couple weeks ago, there were a few people bold enough to ask: “Do you think after the heartache of losing your mom the way he did, it finally got to be too much for him? Do you think he might have ended his own life?”

Well, there are many questions I don’t have an answer for, such as:


  1. Will there ever be justice for my mom’s death? If so, in what year? It’s been a year and a half since she was brutally murdered and we still don’t even have a trial date.
  2. Does the judge even notice that my father and his children have been at every court date since Adam Lawson’s arrest?
  3. Why was the court date canceled the Thursday after my father’s death? Did they know we would have preferred to keep it on the calendar and be there as my father certainly would have been? Was it compassion or an unwillingness to face us?
  4. Does the man who brutally beat my mom to death know her husband, my father is now dead?
  5. If he does know, does this news please him?
  6. Or does he feel at all responsible for ending the lives of both my mother and father? (I do)
  7. Do attorneys comprehend what it’s like to listen to discussion over whether or not your mother’s death was heinous, atrocious, and cruel enough to warrant a death penalty case?
  8. Do they understand it should not be delivered as “good news” to the victim’s family when the medical examiner’s report reveals that the death was in fact, heinous, atrocious, and cruel enough?
  9. Will I ever overcome the trauma of seeing the graphic pictures of my mom lying on her white tiled kitchen floor in a massive pool of her own blood, her ear severed, her brains exposed, her eyes black and blue, her skin bruised, and her fists clenched?
  10. Do people know a defendant can refuse to speak and feign mental illness and delay a trial for 6+ months?
  11. And when a defendant is caught admitting he’s “faking crazy,” did you know the judge may only be told he’s now mentally competent?
  12. And when you ask a prosecutor, “In addition to grand theft, robbery, and murder, why can’t he also be charged with obstruction of justice since for close to a year he’s denied my family our (so-called) right to a speedy trial by “playing crazy?” Did you know the prosecutor will casually answer, “Oh, he’s facing first-degree murder. A misdemeanor is the least of his problems. It’s just not worth it.”
  13. Could a prosecutor ever understand why it might be worth it? What may be a minor obstruction of justice charge to a prosecutor might mean a great deal more to the victim’s family--some who drive 6 hours round-trip to be at every court date that the defendant has made useless because of his malingering?
  14. And while I’m asking questions about things Lawson has done to obstruct justice...What about a month ago? What about September 12th, 2018 when my father, my sisters and brothers, and I were willing to accept a plea deal wherein Lawson could avoid facing the death penalty in exchange for sitting down and answering some of our questions and letting us talk to the man who took our mom, and our father’s bride (as dad always called her)?
  15. Had he intended to face us and truly became overwhelmed with guilt?
  16. How was it easier to brutally beat my mother to death than sit in a room and face us?
  17. Was it possibly always Lawson’s plan to back out at the last second and hope that defeated and exhausted, we’d sign off anyway to avoid further heartbreak?
  18. Could my dad have actually done what he’d planned to do on that horrible September 12th? With his old, tattered bible in hand, would Dad really have offered God’s love and grace to a man who so violently took the love of his life for a few used tvs and an old laptop? September 12th is now but another horrifying date for my siblings and I, another anniversary of pain and disappointment.
  19. Was the indignity of not being given the opportunity my father desired and had so earnestly hoped was divinely inspired--was that broken appointment what finally crushed my father’s huge, crumbling heart?
  20. Was there something, anything we could have done as his children to help mend his broken heart?
  21. Could we have forced him, stubborn as he was, to move out of the home he made with my mom and raised his children in and clung to for all the memories it held for him?
  22. Did he have any idea the home and the neighborhood he clung to is so full of criminal vultures that not even 48 hours after his death, my siblings and I came to clean it and discovered it had been ransacked again? The replaced TVs since mom’s death stolen again, our grandmother’s jewelry gone, and God only knows what else.
  23. Through her tears my daughter’s first comment after hearing the news that her sweet grandpa had died was, “At least you don’t have to go to court this time, Mom.” Do I even tell her that actually there is both a burglary and a homicide investigation for Grandpa? Do I tell her that while we’re pretty sure Grandpa died of a broken heart, we need to be certain. Do I tell my daughter Grandpa’s briefcase was stolen sometime while he was dead in his house, then a couple days later the house was ransacked, and then the morning of his funeral a woman tried to cash a check from his checkbook but thankfully the bank caught it and got the woman’s name so don’t worry little Leora, the police will catch her?
  24. Do I really believe the police will catch her? They had her identification a week ago, they say they know where she is, and yet they still have not made an arrest. Why?
  25. Who will I go to now to ask for parental advice?
  26. Do people know what it’s like to stand by your sisters in the driveway next door to your childhood home looking in the windows the day after you find out your mother’s been murdered? Who can understand the pain of watching evidence technicians in hazmat suits drop the blinds so you and your sisters can no longer peer in, trying to comprehend what has happened?
  27. Did those technicians think we were nosy neighbors or did they realize that the woman dead on the kitchen floor was our mom, and the crime scene they were working was the place we grew up? Could they have guessed the room they were covering in fingerprint powder was where we would line up on Christmas mornings before finally being given the go-ahead to march into the living room and see just how royally we’d been spoiled by Santa year after year?
  28. Where is Adam Lawson’s probation officer?
  29. Was his probation office fired or did she just happen to retire from the department of corrections at age 48 and disappear from the face of the earth?
  30. Was his probation officer concerned that Adam Lawson, a four-time home invasion burglar, landed a job as a political canvasser for Terra Strategies in October and November of 2016 knocking door to door to, as he wrote on his supervision papers, “promote political awareness?”
  31. Is he busy or is it intentional that the owner of Terra Strategies will not return my husband’s many calls?
  32. Did Adam Lawson target my parent’s home after discovering it while promoting “political awareness?”
  33. Did my mom try to fight back and defend herself this time-- since the first time over twenty years ago she did whatever Curtis Head told her to do in order to try to keep him from beating her to death?
  34. Was she in disbelief that she was being attacked in her home? Again.
  35. How long was my mother terrified before she died?
  36. How badly did it hurt to have her jaw broken on both sides?
  37. How many blows to the head did she feel before she didn’t feel anymore?
  38. Why didn’t he let her run out the back door that she was a few feet away from and escape?
  39. What good does his regret for that choice do us now?
  40. Do people think Adam Lawson’s painful life made my mother’s death any less painful to her or us?
  41. If the state cares so much for Lawson, why didn’t they intervene long ago?
  42. Why did DCF place Adam Lawson with a known sex offender at age four?
  43. How is it that his mitigation report states a long drug history and his probation documents state he has no drug history?
  44. Why can’t probation have access to important and valuable information from DCF? How does it protect criminals for probation to be so ill-informed as to how dangerous their clients may be?
  45. When the loss is as big as our mother and our father, how do my siblings and I cut our losses and sign off on a plea deal? If we go forward with a trial since Lawson didn’t keep his end of the plea deal, would it honor both our parents?
  46. Or does it even matter anymore? Either way, trial or plea deal, haven’t we already lost?
  47. Will one of our hearts break to the point of death?
  48. How do we march into courtroom 605 month after month after month without dad?
  49. Dad was our inspiration of strength and determination. In the last year, we said over and over: “If Dad can keep going, I guess we can too.” What happens now that he’s gone?
  50. Do people really care about politics more than people?
  51. Are victims the only people who can understand other victims?
  52. What do I do now?


I’ll stop at fifty-two questions. I could go on, but I want to get back to the only question I can answer, the very first one. It’s also the only question with an easy answer. After such devastating loss, did my dad end his own life? Hell no.


My father and, incidentally, my husband both shared a passion for life that a melancholic soul like me finds unbelievable. I wouldn’t have blamed him for wanting an end to so much pain. I sure as hell get tired of waking up devastated every damn day. But my dad wasn’t like me. My mom and I often joked that we both knew if there was only one neuron left firing in either Dad or my husband’s brains, we both knew they would want the plug fully in the socket. Don’t even think about pulling it. You hang onto life with everything you’ve got.


Five months after my mom’s murder, I developed a precancerous lesion on my pancreas. The way it was discovered was a painful attack of acute pancreatitis. I was at Shands Hospital in horrible pain, bitter, and grieving. Dad showed up with cinnamon chews (an old tradition between us) and sat by my hospital bed. First we ate cinnamon chews, then we talked. I can still hear that gravelly voice saying, “Michelle, I wouldn’t trade my life with anybody. Being married to your mom was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He meant it. He was still thankful and grateful for his life. He planned to fight for justice for mom and all the other people that had come into his path. He was passionate about seeing Marsy’s Law passed. In the last few weeks, it was the only thing he came close to talking about as much as my mom.


No, he didn’t take his life. All the pain in his life finally took him. I told him on his birthday about a month ago that he had a heart of gold. He really did. But I guess even the biggest heart of gold can break if it takes too many hard blows. As to my last question: what do I do now? I guess I’m going to try and answer the first fifty-one questions. My parents deserve that. I only hope my heart can handle the answers.

Michelle Liles