A scene of anguish unfolded in a Cleveland courtroom during the sentencing hearing for serial killer Michael Madison on June 2. He was given the death penalty for murdering three women. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Van Terry stepped to the podium and tried to contain the emotions simmering inside him.

Behind him, in a bright orange jumpsuit, sat Michael Madison, the man convicted of brutally murdering Terry’s teenage daughter.

In front of Terry sat Nancy McDonnell, the Ohio county judge who would decide whether Madison deserved to die for his crimes.

“Right now, I guess in our hearts we’re supposed to forgive this clown,” he said, looking forward, toward the judge, then back, toward the murderer. “Who has touched our families, taken my child.”

He paused. For a moment, it was as if were being pulled in two directions at once: up, toward justice, or down, toward the dark place where violence dwelt.

That’s when Madison smiled, reported Cleveland.com.

And Terry snapped.

In an instant, the grieving father was flying across the room, diving over a wooden table, his arms outstretched toward Madison’s neck.

“No, no, no,” pleaded someone in the courtroom as panic alarms went off.

Sheriff’s deputies stopped Terry before he could reach his target, restraining the distraught dad and telling him to calm down before he ended up in irons himself.

All the while, Madison kept grinning.

If the heart-wrenching courtroom scene was unusual, then so, too, was the gruesome case that brought it about.


A court officer tackles the father of one of three victims of Ohio serial killer Michael Madison, in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland on Thursday.  (David Richard/AP)

The tragedy began in the fall of 2012.

That September, Shetisha Sheeley called her mother, Kim, to say she was stopping by to borrow a little money. But the 28-year-old never showed.

It was the first in a series of warning signs for Glenville, a poor, overwhelmingly African American neighborhood in East Cleveland.

The next one came three months later when Shetisha’s brother was fatally shot. Don’tel Sheeley died three days before Christmas, but when his family held a funeral, Shetisha again didn’t appear. Kim began to fear she had lost two children.

Six months later, in late June 2013, another local woman went missing. Angela Deskins’s family posted photos and increasingly desperate message on social media, but got no leads on the 38-year-old’s whereabouts.

A few weeks later, Shirellda Terry was the last to disappear. The book-loving 18-year-old was last seen coming home from work.

Van Terry and his family put up missing posters, handed out fliers and waited. But the news they got was not what they wanted.

On July 19, a cable television worker reported a foul smell coming from a Glenville garage, according to the Associated Press. Inside, police discovered a woman’s decaying corpse wrapped in garbage bags sealed with tape.

The next day, authorities found two more bodies nearby, one in a vacant house and another in a backyard. They belonged to Sheeley, Deskins and Terry.

All three spots were visible from the second floor balcony of Michael Madison’s apartment, according to Cleveland.com.

He was a handsome, registered sex offender convicted in 2002 of attempted rape, according to court records reviewed by the AP. He had previous convictions for drug-related charges. One acquaintance described him as a “weed man” involved in marijuana sales.

Cops quickly pinned the three killings on Madison.


Crime scene tape cordons off a boarded-up home on July 22, 2013, in an area where the bodies of three women were found in East Cleveland. (Mark Duncan/AP)

He confessed to slaying Sheeley and Deskins but said he couldn’t remember killing Terry, although he did recall putting her body in a garbage bag, prosecutors said in court.

His defense attorneys never argued that Madison was innocent. Rather, they claimed he had killed the women without premeditation and should be spared the death penalty.

“Their deaths were not the result of any planning by Mr. Madison, they were the result of spontaneous eruptions of violence, that were so characteristic of his behavior at that time,” his attorney, David Grant, said in court, Cleveland.com reported.

Madison never expressed remorse, prosecutors pointed out. Madison also said he had been influenced by another serial killer, Anthony Sowell, who was convicted in 2011 for murdering 11 women, according to the AP.

Madison’s victims had been tortured, mutilated and strangled, authorities determined. At least one was raped.

Sheeley’s body had been folded in half at the waist before she was stuffed into a trash bag. Deskins’s body, meanwhile, was discovered wrapped in electrical cords with a belt still cinched around her neck.

Madison saved his most gruesome killing for last, however.

Unlike the older women, Shirellda Terry apparently didn’t know her attacker. She had been plucked off the street on her way home, then tortured, killed and thrown away.

That’s what was on Van Terry’s mind as he approached the podium Thursday in Cuyahoga County court.

“When I first went up there I was okay,” he told Fox8.

But he wasn’t.

“I was thinking about how he mutilated my child, how you cut my child, and you did all this while my child was still alive so you caused my baby great pain,” he said.

And when Madison — who couldn’t remember killing Terry’s daughter — smiled at the grieving father, Terry snapped.

He charged across the room and dove at the murderer.

“I don’t know if I thought about leaping or thought about what have you, I just know I wanted him,” Terry told Fox8.


Officers escort Van Terry, center, from the courtroom after he dove across a table to attack the man convicted of killing his daughter. (David Richard/AP)

Instead, he was restrained by sheriff’s deputies. Prosecutors said afterward that they are not sure if they will charge Terry for the courtroom incident.

“The man reached a breaking point obviously and the defendant was taunting him,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty told ABC5. “He killed his daughter. This is the type of thing Mr. Madison finds amusing.”

“Michael Madison is a gutless coward,” McGinty added.

Van Terry’s family members said they, too, understood why he had snapped.

“He was upset. He’s telling you that he lost his baby, that’s a slice of his heaven, and [Madison] is sitting over there smiling,” his sister, Sonya Richardson, told Cleveland.com. “It’s like, enough.”

Terry himself was unrepentant.

“I call it a father feeling his pain,” he told Fox8, describing his courtroom outburst. “And if I do get charged I’m alright with that because I did what was right.”

In addition to hearing statements from victims’ family members like Van Terry, Judge McDonnell also listened to Madison’s attorneys argue the killer should be spared the death penalty. They said he suffered abuse as a child leading to lasting psychological damage.

Prosecutors called Madison “the worst of the worst” and pressed for a death sentence.

“This man is evil, he is a personification of it,” McGinty said, according to Cleveland.com. “The sentence will not bring back the victims, but in the future, when other cold-blooded criminals do their cost benefit analysis, they will know that death is in the equation for them.”

A jury had already recommended death when Madison was convicted last month.

Judge McDonnell, however, had never before sentenced someone to die.

This time, she made an exception.

“In coming to my decision today, I am struck by the sheer inhumanity of what one human being can do to not one, but three human beings. It is incomprehensible,” she said, facing Madison, Cleveland.com reported. “People who commit the kind of crimes that you have committed must be punished, and must be punished as severely as the law allows. It is absolutely necessary.”

Her decision will be little comfort for Van Terry, however.

Before the trial, he said he didn’t want Madison to get the death penalty.

“Release him inside the [prison] population and let him deal with it every day of his life,” he told ABC5 in 2013. “That’s what I think; I think he should suffer like we suffered.”