Milestones: Kellie Wiggins speaking for victims

The worst day of Kellie Wiggins’ life began on a balmy spring evening six years ago, when she learned that her sister had been murdered.

“I can't even describe the horror of that moment,” she recalled. “A sheriff’s deputy showed up at my house, but he was so upset that he could not tell us what had happened. I had to call the lead investigator on the case to find out the news.”

Wiggins learned that her older sister, Marie Richards, and a friend were shot during a robbery gone horribly awry. For Wiggins, it was the beginning of an arduous journey through the judicial system that opened a new chapter in her life.

“It was pretty bad,” said Wiggins, whose voice warbles when she tells the story. “But through it, I met the daughter of my sister’s friend, and she told me about a group in Vinings that supported the family of murder victims. I didn’t feel like I needed counseling. And I lived near Carrollton, which meant the meetings were about an hour and 45 minutes away.”

But when the time came for Wiggins to deliver a victim impact statement during the trial’s penalty phase, she knew she needed help.

“I didn't know how to place into words how it affected our family,” Wiggins said. “I was very leery about doing it. I needed a network of people to guide me through the process.”

As the trial got under way in November 2007, Wiggins attended meetings of the Crime Victims Advocacy Council, where she met others who had suffered through a loved one’s homicide.

“It was the first time I could talk with people who understood where I was coming from,” she said. “They helped me through the impact statement, which I had to read on the stand without any emotion. But I had to do it; it was the only time I could speak for my sister.”

When the trial ended with the killer receiving the death penalty, Wiggins continued meeting with the advocacy group. One of the first things she did was promote legislation that changed the way impact statements are delivered.

“We got a bill passed last spring that allows families the option to be recorded or videotaped in a separate room while they give their statement,” she said. “They don't have to sit on the stand in front of a jury and the defendant and hope they don't fall apart.”

Though Wiggins lent her energy and support to the legislation, and even joined the council's board last fall, she rarely spoke publicly about her experience. For the last three years, she has attended the council’s annual memorial service for murder victims and listened to stories similar to her own.

This year, Wiggins stood up at the service in Decatur and delivered a her first speech to the group of mourners, many of whom were still raw with the pain of a loved one’s death.

“It was a full-circle moment for me,” Wiggins said. “I felt that these families needed to know that there is hope. And having gone through the judicial system and worked on legislation, I can now do something to let these families move forward. It was really meaningful for me to be with them as we honored the memory of those who are not forgotten.”

But Wiggins doesn’t consider the speech a personal milestone. For that, she points to her wedding day in 1996, when her sister stood as her maid of honor.

“It’s ironic,” said Wiggins, who is now the mother of children ages 9 and 12. “A maid of honor stands for you, but my job was to do all I could for her. I now have to be her voice and stand for her.”

"Milestones" covers significant events and times in the lives of metro Atlantans. Big or small, well-known or not -- tell us of a Milestone we should write about. Send information to hm_cauley@yahoo.com; call 404-514-6162; or mail to Milestones, c/o Jamila Robinson, 223 Perimeter Center Parkway N.E., Atlanta, GA 30346.