HUNTSVILLE — It took death row inmate James Otto Earhart 10 minutes to die by lethal injection Wednesday as a minister's comforting hand held his leg.
No one will ever know how long his victim, Bryan fourth-grader Kandy Kirtland, lingered after a single .22-caliber handgun fired once at her head.
Nor will anyone know whether the 9-year-old knew her fate as the then-400 pound stranger kidnapped her, tied her hands behind her back with electrical cord, and shot her on May 12, 1987.
The brown-haired, blue-eyed Crockett Elementary School student's body was discovered two weeks to the day after her disappearance. She was found face down in a wooded area where Blinn College's Bryan campus now stands.
Several of Earhart's siblings had said they would watch his execution, but none had gathered by 6:03 p.m. Wednesday when he was taken from a holding cell and strapped to a gurney.
Kandy's parents did watch. So did a sister and a brother. Holding on to each other, they quietly watched as the lethal dose was injected into the 56-year-old inmate at 6:14 p.m.
"I'm glad he's dead and that he's not going to get out," said Kandy's oldest brother, John Kirtland of Houston. "Kandy would call me two or three times a week, if nothing but to say 'I love you,' and then hang up. She made me feel loved. In losing her, I lost a lot."
Kirtland said what Earhart did to his sister controlled him for years after the murder, but five years ago he regained control of his life and is unwilling to allow Earhart to take it back.
"What I wanted to hear was him to say 'I'm sorry,'" he said. "That would have helped me."
Earhart made no final statement.
Brazos County District Attorney Bill Turner and then-assistant prosecutor Deena McConnell offered evidence during the 1988 trial that Earhart began the day of May 12, 1987, by visiting a Bryan woman. He was responding to a newspaper advertisement about kittens for sale.
According to the woman, the man said he wanted a pet for his 9-year-old daughter. But Earhart, who is divorced, did not have a daughter. Police believe a contrived story about finding a missing kitten might have been Earhart's ploy to lure Kandy.
Witnesses said that afternoon they saw Kandy, who had just stepped off her school bus, talking to an obese man in a car similar to one driven by Earhart.
Police found Earhart 15 days later sleeping in his car at Sam Houston National Forest near Huntsville. Authorities recovered a .22 caliber pistol with one spent shell under the hammer and five live bullets.
A 32-page handwritten petition from Earhart was faxed to the U.S. Supreme Court hours before his execution Wednesday. He stated that he told his trial attorney that the gun "accidentally discharged" when Kandy kicked it.
Kandy's parents, Joe Kirtland and Jan Brown, said her death was not an accident.
Their latchkey daughter, who lived with her father and stepmother on Deer Trail, made it home that May 12 afternoon. Her backpack was left on the front porch, the front door was open and the keys to the home were on the stove.
What happened next are facts her family still struggles with.
Twelve years and three months after Kandy's murder, Brown on Wednesday tearfully told how she is an opponent of the death penalty, but was at peace with the way the state handled the execution.
"The state allows for dignity and respect, not only for the victim's family, but for the defendant," Brown said. "It's no game up here, guys. It's serious business and they do it well."
She and her son said they didn't know what to expect in watching Kandy's killer die, but both were grateful they made the decision to view it.
"I was unprepared for my own reaction," said Brown, who said she cried uncontrollably when she went behind closed doors with Texas Department of Criminal Justice counselors after the execution.
"My own reaction was shock — the shock of both seeing the man die in front of me, as well as it brought back what it must have been like for my daughter dying alone out in a wooded area and being covered by by garbage," she said. "The contrast was horrendous for me."
Brown said what she took away from the experience she could have gained without witnessing the execution.
"What I got today came from the people who were with him this afternoon and I can't tell you about," she said adding that the counselor and state officials helped the family heal and gave long-awaited closure to the case.
Reva Corbett remembers Earhart and Kandy well.
In 1988, the now-juvenile court judge for Brazos County was a rookie prosecutor who helped with behind-the-scenes duties in trial preparation.
"It hit so close to home because we all have kids who get off the bus everyday," Corbett said. "I wake up in the middle of the night with those gruesome pictures of that precious little girl in my head. This beautiful child was cheated a life."
During the trial, a psychiatrist described Earhart as a borderline psychopath with "marked feelings of inadequacy and inferiority."
The psychiatrist said Earhart fled Bryan two days after the murder because he felt ashamed, not because he felt guilty. He said Earhart, who did not testify, denied responsibility for Kandy's death, but reportedly had told people before he left the city that "they're not going to catch me."
Like many area residents, Bryan Police Chief Lee Freeman recalls the murder case vividly.
"We never had that occur here, so it's one of those cases I will never forget and I doubt any of those involved ever will," he said.
"Tears came out of our eyes when we went into the woods and saw her body," Freeman said. "Even knowing what we knew after two weeks of Kandy being gone, there was always this hope that we would find her alive."
Her memory remains alive in Bryan at the First Baptist Chruch, where a fund was established after her murder. The money goes towards safety education programs for children.
Bill Wiman, minister of education and administration at the church, knew the Kirtland family and, like other congregation members, spent time with them during Kandy's disappearance.
"It was a very intense time," he said Wednesday. "We prayed a lot and, once she was found, we continued to pray for hope and help."
The fund is still active despite a lack of contributions in past 11 or so years.
Brown said she always has appreciated the support of the community, which she knows took her daughter's murder "very personally."
But she said Wednesday that she hopes they will let it go.
"If they could just tap into my sense of well-being right now and know they don't have to spend the rest of their life being afraid and hating — that they can really let it go," she said. "I've let it go and, if I could go for all of them, I would. T Hey can hate the crime, but don't hate the man."
Auhtorities had hoped to question Earhart about another abduction and murder, but Earhart refused to speak this week with police or reporters. He was the 20th inmate to be executed in Texas this year.