OCEANSIDE — Vanessa Iberri and Kelly Cartier noticed the balding man in the red Datsun pickup as he drove past them into the Blue Jay Campground of Cleveland National Forest. The 12-year-old girls were leaving the campground ahead of Vanessa's mother, heading for a creek-side picnic spot where they all planned to eat lunch.
The truck turned around, passed the girls again and disappeared around a bend of the dirt road. The driver, Thomas Francis Edwards, an expert marksman who worked at a shooting range, pulled over and waited.
"Hey, girls!" Edwards yelled from the cab when the hikers caught up with his parked pickup. When they turned to look, Edwards, who didn't know either girl, leveled a .22 Ruger automatic pistol at Vanessa's forehead and pulled the trigger, striking her between the eyes. His second shot grazed Kelly's forehead. She had flinched in shock at the first blast, dodging a direct hit.
Vanessa Iberri died two days later. Kelly Cartier survived to testify against Edwards, who was sentenced to death five years and four trials later. It was a frustrated prosecution despite the eyewitness account and solid evidence against Edwards provided by campers who happened upon the grisly scene seconds after the shootings.
It has been 27 years since Vanessa's death, and ever since that day, her father, Joe, has devoted much of his energy to seeing his daughter's killer executed.
"People ask me, 'How do you keep your sanity?' And I tell them I keep on because I'm fighting for my daughter. She still lives within me," he said, tapping his heart.
Edwards was convicted of Vanessa's murder in 1983, and then, after two penalty-phase mistrials, sentenced to death in 1986. Now 65, he is one of 677 prisoners on California's death row at San Quentin State Prison. The execution chamber has been idle for the last three years, as carpenters have worked on rebuilding it and courts pondered whether the state's lethal injection procedures pass constitutional muster. For Iberri, the delays have been torturous.
"All these trials I've been to, and that guy is still up there on death row with three meals a day and TV and DVDs," Iberri fumes with a rage that has been fueled anew with each appeal accorded Edwards.
If Vanessa had lived, she would have turned 40 in May. Instead, her life has been reduced to a scrapbook of photos fixing her forever in childhood. One, circa 1980, shows Iberri with Tony Orlando-like hair and mustache, his arm draped over Vanessa's shoulders as they smile from atop a blanket at the beach. Another captures the girl beaming in a full-length satin gown as a bridesmaid at her cousin's wedding. In a snapshot taken the night before her murder, Vanessa wears a Mona Lisa half-smile, her long brown hair pushed back from her face by a tortoise-shell headband.
"Every day that you live, you think about all the things other families go through -- birthdays, graduation, college, boyfriends -- for me that's all gone," he said of the milestones missing from the album. "I never got to see her get married. I'll never experience having grandkids."
The legal drama that has unfolded over nearly three decades is filed in a brown paper grocery sack that lives at the end of the living-room sofa, beneath a knock-off Charles Russell painting and a Navajo dream catcher. A mounted buffalo head stares glassy-eyed from the facing wall across a room crammed with Western artifacts and the quotidian belongings -- TV, magazines, toolbox -- of a life endured rather than lived.
"Vanessa and me, we used to go to a lot of flea markets and garage sales," Iberri recalled as he pawed through the bag in search of a newspaper article from the most recent ruling in Edwards' case. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld denial of further review in September.
That's not the end of the condemned man's legal recourse, though. He has at least two more court appeals challenging his sentence, another to the governor for clemency and a paralyzed battle over capital punishment on which he can rely to stave off the executioner for another few years.
California's top legal minds agree that the state's system for capital punishment is dysfunctional, if not irreparably broken.
"The leading cause of death on California's death row is old age," said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, reiterating an observation he made at the time the state Legislature approved a new $220-million death row at San Quentin. The project to house the state's death row population, the nation's largest, has yet to break ground and is now predicted to cost $400 million.
George last year proposed that some death penalty reviews that automatically go to the state high court -- and account for at least a quarter of its workload -- be handled by California courts of appeal. But that would require a constitutional amendment by legislative action or voter initiative, neither of which has happened.