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Sanderson Execution On, Protest Continue

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Ricky Lee Sanderson faces execution Fri
RALEIGH — Ricky Lee Sanderson, 38, is scheduled for execution at 2 a.m. Friday for the slaying of 16-year-old Sue Ellen ``Suzi'' Holliman of Lexington on March 14, 1985. He will be executed by lethal gas, a Department of Correction spokesman said Monday.

Only one other person has been executed by lethal gas in North Carolina since capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976. The seven other inmates put to death selected lethal injection.

Suzi Holliman's father said he will be a witness when Sanderson is put to death.

``He took my daughter's life and if we're going to have a justice system, there needs to be that accountability,'' Hugh Holliman told the Winston-Salem Journal. ``It won't bring her back. But it will pay a debt that is owed.''

Sanderson's confession while in prison for a pair of rapes freed a man who had been arrested in the Holliman case.

Authorities had arrested Elwood ``Woody'' Jones, an employee of Holliman's father. The former district attorney was a month away from trial when Sanderson confessed in January 1986. Sanderson was serving a sentence of life plus 110 years for raping a woman at her High Rock Lake home and stabbing her 82 times.

Besides the High Rock Lake assault, Sanderson was convicted of breaking into a Lexington motel room and raping a South Carolina woman while her 3-year-old daughter slept nearby.

His confession may have been stirred by remorse following a visit in Central Prison by a private detective hired by Jones' family. The detective visited Sanderson in his cell and showed him a picture of Holliman, but Sanderson didn't confess for several days.

``If he hadn't come forward and given a statement, certainly no one would have known the other confession was a false confession,'' said Morris, who was an assistant DA at the time and now is the district attorney in Davidson County.

``His conscience bothered him an awful lot,'' said attorney Davis North of Greensboro. ``He is by far more remorseful than anybody I've ever dealt with in this type of situation. He has always been the utmost concerned with what these trials would do to the Holliman family.''

Sanderson pleaded guilty to kidnap and murder charges and was first sentenced to death in 1987. Two more sentencing hearings were held before Sanderson's death sentence withstood appeals.

As a child, Sanderson endured beatings, had to scrounge for his food, watched his father have sex with his 6-year-old sister and began using drugs as a teen-ager, according to a Supreme Court summation of the case in 1994.

North and Wayland Cooke, who together represented Sanderson at his third sentencing hearing, plan to ask Gov. Jim Hunt to commute the death sentence to life in prison at a hearing Tuesday.

Hunt has never changed a death sentence.

``We felt the circumstances of his case justified a life sentence,'' North said. ``I felt very strongly that since he had come forward and freed an innocent man, that made his case very different.''

But Sanderson has asked several times for death, and North said during his trials that his client wanted to be executed.

In 1992, Sanderson sent a handwritten petition to the North Carolina Supreme Court, saying he ``would like to give my life for the first-degree murder for which I was sentenced to die for and respectfully ask this court to grant me the mercy of being put to death.''

Sanderson confessed that he kidnapped the girl after breaking into her parents' home to steal drug money. He said he raped her and locked her in his car trunk while digging her grave. He choked her to death, then stabbed her in the chest.

Prosecutor Gene Morris said Suzi Holliman was scratching on the closed trunk lid while her shallow grave was being dug, just before she was raped and strangled.

``I'm pretty sure she knew what was coming,'' Morris said. ``(Sanderson) has said since that he felt like she knew what was going to happen to her.''

Her decomposed body was found by a farmer several weeks later.

Morris said he plans to watch the execution in support of Holliman's family because ``the facts of that case were especially horrible.''

North also plans to be a witness because Sanderson ``wants some friendly faces there.''

Sanderson told the Winston-Salem Journal he spends much of his time reading and praying and is at peace and ready to die.

``I think about facing Suzi Holliman when I'm executed,'' Sanderson said. ``What's that going to be like? I'm ready to do it. I'm going to be with Christ.''

The last execution in North Carolina occurred in September 1995. There are 176 people on death row, including three women.