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Mississippi Mom Will Witness Execution Of Man Who Brutally Raped, Killed Her 16-Year-Old Daughter

Wanda Farris, Leesa Gray's mother, described her daughter as "happy-go-lucky" and "always smiling." The 16-year-old was brutally raped and murdered by Thomas Edwin Loden Jr. in Mississippi in 2000. 

By Christina Coulter
They Died Too Young: Teen Victims of Homicide

The mother of a teenage girl raped and killed in Mississippi 22 years ago is set to watch the execution of the man who took her daughter's life on Wednesday. 

Wanda Farris, slain 16-year-old Leesa Gray's mother, described her daughter as "happy-go-lucky" and "always smiling" in an interview with the Associated Press

"That's what I remember her by, is her smile," Farris said. "She loved life and she was a good Christian girl." 

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Gray was stranded on a rural road with a flat tire on the night of June 22, 2000, during the summer ahead of what would have been her senior year in high school. She had been driving home from her job as a waitress at her uncle's restaurant in north Mississippi's Itawamba County.

Marine Corps recruiter Thomas Edwin Loden Jr., now 58, arrived at the scene at approximately 10:45 p.m. and pulled her into his van. He told investigators that he spent four hours raping and sexually battering her before strangling her to death, according to the AP. Gray's family members found her car hours later; her purse was still inside and its hazard lights were still flashing.

A police handout of Thomas Edwin Loden Jr.

Loden pleaded guilty to capital murder, rape and four counts of sexual battery in September of 2001, telling Gray's friends and family in the courtroom after his sentencing: "I hope you may have some sense of justice when you leave here today." 

But Farris told the Associated Press on Friday that she didn't feel his apology was genuine. 

"I don't particularly want to see somebody die," she added. "But I do believe in the death penalty ... I do believe in justice."

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After 21 years on death row, Loden is scheduled to die on Wednesday by lethal injection at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman with Farris bearing witness. He is among three death row inmates suing Mississippi over the state's three-drug method of execution. Attorneys for the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the practice representing the three inmates, allege that the practice is inhumane, according to ABC 24

But a federal judge last week denied a request to block his execution while the lawsuit, filed in 2015, continues. Loden will be the first prisoner executed in Mississippi since November of 2021; that prisoner was the first person executed in the state in nine years. 

Farris said her daughter had a job babysitting two young boys, loved participating in the Bethel Baptist Church youth group and aspired to be an elementary school teacher. She said Gray was "a good kid." 

"She wasn't perfect, now, mind you," Farris said. "But she strived to do right." 

Gray's best friend, Lisa Darracott — now 39 — told the outlet that she hopes the execution will bring her closure and that her dear friend's demise crosses her mind each day. The pair were introduced in kindergarten. 

"Our mothers introduced us to distract us from the fact that we didn't want to be there," she told the AP. "We had a secret obsession with the Spice Girls." 

She described playing house and office with Gray, saying that they would "give [themselves] married names of whatever boy we had a crush on."

Darracott described Gray as a quiet-yet-outgoing young woman who stood up against bullies and welcomed others. At Itawamba Agricultural High School, she said, Gray took an interest in hair and makeup and would help Darracott get ready for dances. 

Like Darracott, Farris hopes the execution will help her move on: "You just have this hanging over your head all these years. Leesa is always going to be in my heart and my mind." 

However, she told the outlet that she forgave her daughter's killer years ago.

"I said, 'I forgive you, Eddie Loden,'" Farris recalled. "I just felt at peace about it, but I started crying. I felt like I was betraying Leesa." 

But her pastor, she said, assured her that God would want her to forgive Loden.

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