PHOENIX -- Amber Salem does not mince words -- she wants Shawn Grell to die for killing the couple's 2-year-old daughter Kristen. But thanks to an Arizona Supreme Court ruling handed down on Wednesday, the execution of Shawn Grell will never happen.
“Very shocking… very shocking. Very unexpected,” Salem said, speaking for the first time since hearing that Grell will not be condemned to death for committing one of the most heinous crimes in Valley history.
Salem has endured what no mother can imagine.
Her daughter, Kristen, was set on fire and murdered by her own father out in the desert more than a decade ago.
On Dec. 2, 1999, Grell picked little Kristen up from daycare and told her they were going to look at Christmas lights. Instead, he went store to store collecting the things he would need to burn her to death. When he was ready, Grell drove out into the desert near Mesa, poured gasoline over Kristen’s tiny body and lit her on fire.
He admitted watching her run around on fire before collapsing dead.
“I laid her on the dirt next to the car, laid her down, took gasoline, poured it on her. I took a match and threw it on her,” Grell told investigators in a taped interrogation.
Grell has twice been sentenced to death row for his crime. The state’s Supreme Court has twice commuted the sentence.
In 2001, Judge Barbara Jarrett sentenced Grell to death by lethal injection. Five years later the Arizona Supreme Court vacated the sentence, ruling that Grell would need to be resentenced by a jury of his peers. A jury was convened and quickly returned a death sentence.
Throughout the case, however, has been the issue of Grell’s mental competency. Federal law prohibits executing “mentally retarded” persons under the U.S. Constitution’s "cruel and unusual punishment" clause found in the eighth amendment.
On Wednesday, the court decided that several factors -- including Grell’s extremely low I.Q. -- make him ineligible to be executed under federal law.
Salem lived with Grell for six years – two of them before giving birth to Kristen – and said she never believed he showed any signs of mental handicap.
“Everything he had done was premeditated," she said. "He had planned everything out. I don't understand how they can rule him as mentally retarded. I have no words for it."
Grell’s attorney’s released a statement shortly after the court’s ruling saying:
“Societal standards of decency and humanity preclude the death penalty on mentally retarded persons no matter how horrific the crime. Justice has been served.”
But given the horror of the crime and the admission of guilt from Grell, Salem finds it impossible to understand the mercy of the court.
“What about the punishment my daughter had to endure the night he set my daughter on fire? Are they thinking of her or are they just thinking of him? Because in my eyes…” Amber’s voice trailed off and her eyes filled with tears. Still whipping away salty streaks running down her face Amber continued, “[Kristen] deserves to be here more than [Grell] does. There's not a day that goes by that I don't miss [Kristen].”
But missing Kristen doesn't mean Salem can't move on.
“There's always going to be a place in my heart that has a hole but I’ve got a family now and I've gotta make sure my family now is safe and protected and I've gotta do the best that I can for them,” she said.
Salem’s 17-month-old daughter, Shyann, is about the same age Kristen was when she was murdered.
“She's my one that reminds me so much of Kristen,” she said, talking about little Shyann.
Holding Shyann and watching her other two kids, Trinity, 8, and Jesse, 6, play with their Uncle Jason, Salem smiled and confirmed that she loves being a mom. She also says she “treasures” the father of her three children and boyfriend of 10 years, Peter. And she admits his dedication to their relationship over that time hasn’t always been easy.
“Sometimes he doesn’t know how to take it,” she said, referring to the times when her past sneaks up and threatens to shatter the fragile shell of happiness now built around the family of five. “Sometimes he doesn’t know how to approach me.”
But Salem has proved she’s a survivor. Peter has proved he’s committed to the sometimes difficult life ahead. And now all they can do is move on and seek greener pastures far away from the death and despair of that night in the desert so long ago.
“I have a great support system," she said. "If it wasn't for family I wouldn't have anybody.”