D.C. man gets 45 years for fatal 2009 stabbings of girlfriend and her children

Erika Peters's father, Bobby Harper, remembers his daughter outside Carver Terrace in Northeast Washington on Sunday. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 10:03 PM

Joseph R. Mays recalled Friday how he and his live-in girlfriend, Erika Peters, held their newborn daughter, Ashleigh, in the moments after Peters had given birth four years ago.

Mays, 46, spoke of Peters's youngest son, Dakota, and the 10-year-old's smile and compassion for others, including Mays. Mays then talked about celebrating Peters's son Erik's 11th birthday during a party.

But as Mays stood shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit before Judge Gerald Fisher in D.C. Superior Court, Mays never spoke of the afternoon of March 21, 2009. That's when police and prosecutors say Mays stabbed Peters, 37, Dakota and Erik to death in an angry rage in their second-floor apartment in the 2000 block of Maryland Avenue NE.

"I'm not a monster. I'm not a cold-blooded killer," Mays told the judge shortly before he was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

"I'm extremely sorry. I never wanted this to happen at all," he said. Several of Peters's relatives and friends in the crowded courtroom murmured and jeered as Mays spoke.

The slayings led to intense criticism of District police after Peters's family learned that an officer waited outside the door of the apartment for 30 minutes before trying to break in and help.

During an early hearing in the case, prosecutors played a 911 call made by Erik. When an officer arrived at the apartment, he heard a faint sound of a child crying out "No, stop!" But he waited for authorization from a supervisor. The door had been barricaded from the inside with a metal rod, and officers had to wait for a fire department crew to get inside.

Prosecutors originally charged Mays with seven counts, including three of first-degree murder and two of child cruelty. In June, Mays pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder.

Prosecutor Charles W. Cobb asked Fisher to sentence Mays to 46 years in prison. Cobb described in graphic detail how Mays broke the knife's blade off in Peters's skull during the attack. The only survivor that afternoon was Ashleigh, whom Cobb said Mays left to "crawl around on the floor in the blood" of her mother and brothers. Peters's sons were from a previous relationship.

Mays, a defensive lineman-size man who towered over his attorney and the U.S. marshal standing next him, said he wrestled with mental illness for most of his life.

Mays's attorney, Elizabeth Mullin, said Mays inherited the disease from his mother, whose serious mental health issues Mays had to deal with as a child.

"His mental illness was the cause of his behavior but did not rise to the level of legal insanity," said Mullin, an attorney with the District's Public Defender Service.

Fisher agreed that Mays's mental health was a "player" in the slayings and referred to the case as "tragic" and "horrific." The judge sentenced Mays to 45 years, which Fisher said was "a life sentence" for Mays. Under sentencing guidelines, Mays would have to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before being eligible for release.

Before Fisher issued his sentence, another of Peters's sons, James Harper, 17 and the eldest, spoke of how his mother and siblings took Mays in and made him part of their family.

Harper lived in the apartment with Mays and his family until just days before the slayings. After repeated clashes with Mays, Peters arranged for Harper to live with his father in North Carolina. At the sentencing, Harper often looked at Mays when he angrily spoke of how Mays "manipulated" his mother and killed a family that "took you in."

After the hearing, Peters's sister, Kimberly Harper-Trimble, shook her head and said she did not believe that Mays suffered from a mental illness. Trimble, who with her husband is raising Ashleigh, said she thought the sentence was fair. "It's basically a life sentence."

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