THERE WAS STANDING ROOM ONLY IN A SMALL HARRIS COUNTY COURTROOM THIS past September on the day Robert Carreiro stood before the man sentenced to death for killing his only daughter. The occasion was Carreiro’s reading of his victim’s impact statement, a relatively new and quixotic end-of-trial proceeding meant to provide “closure” for those who have experienced or lost someone to violent crime. But for Carreiro it reflected the moment he let go of one life and embraced another. Behind him was his life as a private individual; before him was a future as a public victim, an inhabitant of that niche in American society where one man’s pain is another man’s diversion. If you lived in Houston in the summer of 1992, his story was familiar to you: He was the father of Kynara Carreiro, who until July 20 had been a particularly pretty seven-year-old with shimmering blond hair and knowing blue eyes. The photograph most often featured by the media at the time of her death was the one in which she posed with her arm around her best friend, Kristin Wiley, a ten-year-old with a tumble of curls and the sweet but tentative smile of an older girl before the camera. Both children were found stabbed to death on a blood-soaked bed in the Wiley home. They had been sexually assaulted and then murdered in the middle of the day, in the middle of a suburb northwest of Houston previously believed to be safe, while Kristin’s brother played across the street, while Kynara’s mother was engaged with chores a few doors down.
For almost nineteen months no arrest was made, though the investigation eventually focused on a neighbor who had lied to Harris County Sheriff’s Department homicide investigators about having seen two men, an African American and a Hispanic, jump the fence into his yard around the time of the killings. That man, Rex Mays, pale and bespectacled, who sometimes performed as Uh-Oh the Clown at children’s parties in and around Houston, confessed to investigators in the winter of 1994. He had killed the girls after having “a bad day”—he’d been fired from his job, and Kristin and Kynara had enraged him by refusing to turn down the Christian music they were listening to as they played. Mays had stabbed Kristin 18 times and Kynara 23, and yet before the younger girl died she had had the courage to tell Mays: “You are going to be sorry you did this,” which, when Carreiro learned of it, inspired in him a mission at first devoted to Mays’s conviction and then to something much larger and much more necessary to his survival.
“Keep it short,” the judge had advised, and Carreiro planned to do just that. He had seen his share of emotional and incomprehensible outbursts by victims—in fact, they had become a staple of tabloid TV shows—and that was not what he wanted. Carreiro stood up and in a gentle, almost abject cadence, did not speak to Mays at all, but to those around him. He thanked the judge and the jurors, the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department. He suggested that childhood trauma, an explanation employed briefly by the defense, was no excuse for the horrific violence visited upon his daughter. “Inflated excuses of a poor childhood or ‘my mother didn’t love me as much as my sister’ are no longer acceptable,” he said.
It was not so much the substance of Carreiro’s talk that drew people to him as his style. For his speech he had changed out of the suit he had worn for the seven-day trial into the clothes in which he was most comfortable: a suede vest over a button-down shirt and jeans and his boots. At 46 he wore his long silver hair braided down his back, and his eyes were the kind of bottomless blue that, under the circumstances, could only be described as haunted. He looked as if he had been no stranger to violence before Kynara’s murder, which happened to be the truth. “I ask everyone to keep informed and keep involved so we can rid society of predators such as Rex Mays,” Carreiro said and then, feeling the onset of tears, sat down. He had spoken for no more than three minutes.
After the court was adjourned, cameras blocked the courtroom exit, their lights turning the dingy corridor as bright as midday. Carreiro emerged and was swamped by reporters, while family members, pushed to the periphery, fell into one another’s arms. The crowd reflected the world that had enveloped him since Kynara’s murder: Along with the media, there was Andy Kahan, who ran the mayor’s crime victims’ office, and Randy Ertman, the huge, barrel-chested man with whom Carreiro had fashioned a friendship out of mutual grief. Representatives of Justice for All—the state’s most influential victims’ rights group, which Carreiro had helped establish—and Parents of Murdered Children were there too. After the Wileys emerged from the courtroom, the contingent moved outside for a final press conference. Had justice been served? the reporters wanted to know. Would Carreiro attend Mays’s execution, as a new state policy allows? Where would he go from here?
Carreiro answered their questions as best he could—witnessing the execution, he said, “was not retaliation but justice”—and then, little by little, everyone drifted away. After more than three years in the spotlight, Bob Carreiro was left alone with the life his daughter’s death had created for him.
IN MID-OCTOBER 1995 THE PINK CONSTRUCTION-PAPER ribbon bearing Kristin’s and Kynara’s names still hung on the front door of Bob Carreiro’s modest northwest Houston home. Inside he most often settled in the small living room that remained a shrine to his daughter: Portraits of Kynara lined the wall, videos of her surrounded the TV, and her belongings lay entombed in a cedar chest. Laid off from his job as a truck driver sixteen months before, and long divorced from Kynara’s mother, Carreiro had lately given in to drift. Other