Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
Vernetta Cockerham woke up on November 19, 2002, feeling at peace for the first time since she could remember. After months of living in terror of her estranged husband's violence, knowing he would kill her if he could, she'd gone to sleep the night before relieved beyond words by the thought of his finally being arrested. Today she could fully focus on her children. Her oldest, Candice, had an appointment with an army recruiter. Cockerham was so proud of her daughter, the way she made friends easily even though she was one of the few African-American students in her rural North Carolina high school. And now, at 17, Candice wanted to serve her country.
Cockerham loaded her three kids into the Explorer and dropped off 6-year-old Rashieq at school, just down the street from where they lived. Their home, an old yellow farmhouse, had belonged to her grandmother and stood right in the center of Jonesville, within plain view of the town hall and the police station.
She drove the baby, Dominiq, almost 9 months old, to daycare, then left Candice at the library to copy a few documents for her interview. Cockerham had one more stop that morning. She needed to call the department of social services because someone—and she was sure it was her husband—had filed an anonymous child-neglect complaint against her. That man would stop at nothing. But at least now that he was in jail, he wouldn't be showing up everywhere she went to slam her around and threaten her, or digging holes near the house and telling her they would be the family's graves. She made the call from a friend's place and went back to the library. But Candice had already headed home.
As Cockerham pulled up to the house, she noticed the front door—it wasn't like her daughter to leave it ajar that way, especially with all that had been going on.
And then in a horrifying instant she saw them: her husband's keys, dangling in the lock.
She was barely through the door when he lunged at her with a knife.
"I killed her," she heard him say as if in slow motion. "And I'm going to kill you."
She reached for the knife, grabbing it by the blade.
There was no pain. Only terror.
"Candice!" she screamed. "Candice!"
He lunged again and Cockerham took cover behind a heavy three-tiered plant stand. It toppled, the glass shelves crashing and knocking the knife from her husband's hand. She felt a shard of glass slice into her head and the warmth of her blood dripping down her back. Just before she blacked out, she felt his hands around her throat.
When Cockerham came to, she thought she heard Candice's voice calling for her, as if rousing her from a deep sleep.
"Ma, get up. Get up."