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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

07-21-2002 McAlester News

Sue Norton Believes in Forgiveness for Everyone.
Even for a Man Who Killed her Adoptive Father and His Wife.

In fact, Norton has been working to stop Robert Wesley Knighton's execution since Knighton was convicted in November, 1990.
"I'm a minority," Norton said when reached at her Kansas home Monday. "I know that. But I don't understand how we, as a supposedly civilized society, can execute someone, no matter what they've done. "Most countries don't have the death penalty, you know."
According to Amnesty International, 111 countries have either abolished capital punishment or don't execute persons, even if a person is convicted to death. Of the 84 countries that do have a death penalty, most use it very sparingly.
"But Oklahoma last year - it was like Oklahoma was in a race to see which state could kill the most people," said Sue Norton.
Oklahoma executed 18 death row inmates in 2001 - more than any other state in the nation.
Reached at her Kansas home Monday afternoon, Sue Norton said she was disappointed with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision to uphold Knighton's death sentences for the Oklahoma murders.
"I was really hoping they'd overturn the sentences," she said. Her voice broke. "It's hard. I feel like the state is making me a victim all over again."
Sue Norton first met Robert Knighton in a holding cell in Perry while the jury that found Knighton guilty of two murders tried to decide his punishment.
The jury had convicted Knighton of killing Norton's adopted father, Richard Denney, and his wife, Virginia, in their rural Noble County home.
"I didn't know I was against the death penalty until the trial," Sue Norton said, but as the trial wore on, she found herself growing more and more disturbed. "When I started realizing what (Knighton) had gone through in his life, I started thinking."

According to court documents, Knighton was in the middle of a four-day crime spree that stretched across three states when he shot 62-year-old Richard Denney and Denney's 64-year-old wife, Virginia. Knighton, his 20-year-old girlfriend, Renee Williams, and a 17-year-old friend, Lawrence Brittain, took off from a halfway house in Kansas City, Mo., after they learned that Brittain was to be transferred from a light security facility to a secure facility.

At 48, Knighton was the acknowledged leader of the group. He had lived a rough life, Norton said, and hadn't had a good example to follow. His mother had been married six times and had numerous live-in boyfriends by the time Knighton was 16. At 12, he was in a reformatory. In 1974, when he was 33, he was sentenced to 40 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary for
manslaughter and kidnapping. In 1989 he was released from prison and sent to the halfway house

After first driving a stolen van to Knighton's mother's home in Springfield, Mo., the trio went to Brittain's home town of Clinton, Mo., where they met up with Frank Merrifield and Ray Donahue. When Merrifield invited Knighton to shoot a pearl handled .22 caliber pistol Knighton fired it into the back of Merrifield's head, then killed Donahue.  The three took money, the .22
caliber pistol and a .38 caliber pistol from the dead men, then drove south to Oklahoma. At a rural home near Tonkawa, the trio stopped at Denney's home, where Knighton used the .38 caliber pistol to shoot Virginia Denney one time and Richard Denney twice before taking $61 and a pickup truck.
The three were arrested in Canadian, Texas, when a resident reported a suspicious vehicle was driving slowly around a neighborhood.
During Robert Knighton's trial in Perry, Sue Norton sat in the courtroom and found she was getting confused about what she should feel.
"It seemed I was supposed to feel two different ways," she said. "Society says I should feel anger and want vengeance, but I was also taught I need to pray for him and forgive him."
During a long, sleepless night, Sue Norton prayed about her confusion. "I remember asking God how I was supposed to feel and asking for his help," she said.

In the morning, she had reached a decision. "I had to go to him, to tell him that I didn't hate him. I'd never hated anyone and I wasn't going to start."  That first meeting with Robert Knighton was frightening for Sue Norton. At first, she recalled, the six-foot tall man in shackles refused to look at her, but she steeled herself and told him "If you are guilty, I forgive you."
When Sue Norton reached through the bars to touch the hand jurors believed had held the gun that killed her father, Robert Knighton tried to pull back, but Sue Norton grasped his hand and began to pray. That was the beginning of an unlikely friendship.
"I wanted him to know that Jesus could forgive him anything, but I needed to give him an example," Sue Norton said.
"It became very important to me for him to understand why I had forgiven him."
Since then, Norton said, Knighton "has accepted Christ as his savior, and it's really made a difference."

Where the man she first met in the Perry jail cell was "full of anger, suspicion and meanness," the man Norton writes to and visits at Oklahoma State Penitentiary "is completely changed.
"He's very different today from what he used to be."
Although many people say death row inmates falsely claim conversion in an effort to save their lives or manipulate people, Sue Norton said, "I believe (Knighton's) is real."  Robert Knighton doesn't spout scripture like some inmates, she said, "but you know he really believes just from his actions.
"He's just a totally different man from what he used to be. Today when I talk to him he's an encouraging person. He encourages me. He might say something like 'I'll pray about it' or 'God's will be done.' "He's just very encouraging."
Sue Norton said she believes some inmates do have true conversions. When a state executes those inmates, she said, "the joke's on the state, because the inmate is going to heaven."
Although Sue Norton is working to stop Robert Knighton's execution, she doesn't believe he should go free either.

"I'm the one who cleaned up their blood," she said. "That was awful, but I still don't think killing someone is right, no matter what they've done. "I don't feel that Sue Norton, as a member of society, has given the state of Oklahoma or anyone else the right to kill in my name.""What would it hurt for him to continue to sit in prison?" she asked.
"Killing him won't bring back my dad. It won't make the pain go away."
Sue Norton said some friends and family members stopped talking to her after she became active in such groups as the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty and Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.
"They'd walk across the street so they wouldn't have to talk to me," she said. But, she added, her immediate family, including her husband, her five children and her nine grandchildren "all support me."
"Executions just turn more families into victims, although in this case it won't hurt his family because he doesn't have one."
If Robert Knighton is taken from his cell and strapped to the execution gurney in OSP after his appeals run out, Sue Norton said she plans to be there as a witness for him.
"He doesn't have anyone else," she said.

By Doug Russell