Driving home from shopping Monday night, Marianne Connelly's conversation with a friend turned to her 12-year-old, Robin Samsoe, murdered 21 years ago.
Sometimes she could talk only about the horror. But this conversation was about good times, and the mood was upbeat.
Five minutes after they entered her house in Norco, Connelly's world collapsed.
Rodney James Alcala, first sentenced to death two decades ago for Robin's murder, had been granted a new trial for the second time, she learned in a phone call.
"It was like somebody had just slapped me hard in the face," Connelly said.
She slept not a moment all night. Tuesday, she arrived at Riverside County Regional Medical Center. "I'm a mess," she told them, and sought medical treatment just to get through the day.
When people ask parents of murdered children how they cope with the long, long years of appeals for their children's killers, this is what they say: You just don't.
"How do you possibly put your life in order, when there is no order?" she said while at the hospital.
Alcala was sentenced to death in 1981 for murdering Robin. The blond-haired girl was last seen alive at the beach not far from her Huntington Beach home on June 20, 1979. Her body was found 12 days later in the Angeles National Forest.
Three years after his death sentence, the state Supreme Court overturned Alcala's conviction, stating prosecutors should not have been allowed to present evidence of Alcala's previous assaults on young women during the guilt phase of his trial.
Connelly and her three children relived the horror again during a new trial in 1986. A different jury brought in the same verdict--death for Alcala.
Surely, Connelly thought at the time, this will be it. They'd never have to endure such courtroom anguish again.
Unless the attorney general's office succeeds in its fight to have the latest ruling overturned, the choice won't be hers.
"I have no clue how I'll get through it," she said. "I am scared, just so very scared."
Patricia Rose, Connelly's best friend, sat by her side at the hospital Tuesday and tried to comfort her.
"We'll get through it," said Rose, who later drove her home. "I'll help you get through it."
Connelly smiled at her friend, but shook her head.
"How? This is just too much to ask. No one should have to go through this a third time."
She trembled and cried Tuesday as she talked about her daughter, but she didn't want to stop. You've heard lots about Alcala, she told a reporter, but I want you to hear about Robin.
Connelly worked two jobs and raised four children as a single mother. Two years before Robin's death, the five of them shoved everything they owned into a U-Haul and headed from Wisconsin to California.
"I drove Robin to her death," she said in tears. She can't keep herself from thinking that way.
Connelly chose Huntington Beach because it seemed like a good, clean town for raising children. All of the kids were active, but Robin most of all.
She was a ballerina and a star gymnast. The Olympics was her goal. Connelly spent $87 a week on dance lessons, and said it was well worth it.
Here's an idea how special Robin was, Connelly said. Every Saturday morning for more than a year, Robin fixed her mother breakfast in bed, served on a tray with a fresh daisy.
"She never called me 'Mom,' " Connelly said. "She always called me 'Pretty Lady.' She said she wanted red hair just like mine--hers was almost white. I said, 'But Robin, people spend tons of money to try to have hair like yours.' And she'd say, 'But Pretty Lady, I want to look like you.' "
And then there was the promise to God.
"Two years before she died, Robin had to have surgery on her esophagus. She promised God that if he let her get through it, she would spend one hour in church for every hour that she danced. She lived up to that promise too."
After Robin's murder, just keeping the family running became a heavy task.
"Grief is such a selfish emotion," Connelly said. "When you have that pain, you can't imagine anyone else having it. So sometimes you aren't the easiest person to live with."
She began volunteer work, helping other crime victims, thinking it was something Robin would do.
But the nightmares never stopped. And there was the guilt, for both her and one of her sons.
He was supposed to go to the beach with Robin and her friends that day, but he had begged off to go surfing. Connelly had told him, go ahead, Robin will be fine.
It's a frozen moment in time for both. One they can't get past.
Connelly tried therapy, but didn't always like what she heard.
"They said I'll never get past this until I can forgive him [Alcala]. But my God, how could I?"
Maybe it would help, a therapist suggested, if she wrote to Alcala in prison.
"I sat down and wrote him a seven-page letter, pouring out how he had ruined my life," she said.
It didn't help. She didn't send it to him. Nor has she ever heard from Alcala, who maintains his innocence.
There are so many ways in which Connelly's life has been deeply affected by the murder.
She watches no TV at all, and doesn't read any newspaper. During one of the trials, she had been shocked while watching TV to suddenly see her daughter's picture flashed on the screen. Same thing happened once with a newspaper.
Now, Connelly's free time is spent volunteering, antiquing with Rose, and enjoying the success of her other three children, plus her nine grandchildren.
Each of her children, she says, has a daughter that looks precisely like Robin.
Connelly, recently estranged from a second husband, says the hardest part of the 24 hours since learning about the ruling was informing her other children.
"We've all said it many times, Robin was our angel," she said. "There was always an aura of peace and tranquillity around her. And now, we're all so overwhelmed."