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Chandler mother remembers murder victim's 'bubbly, happy character'

Chandler mother remembers murder victim's 'bubbly, happy character'
Posted at 12:23 PM, Nov 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-28 14:34:45-05

If David Earl Miller dies in Tennessee's electric chair next week as scheduled for the 1981 murder of Lee Standifer, the slain Knoxville woman's mother won't be there to witness it.

Helen Standifer won't say exactly how she feels about the execution, but she knows she doesn't need to see it.

"I'm not vengeful like that," she said in a phone interview from her home in Chandler, Arizona, adding that her presence at the execution "won't help my daughter at all."

Court documents say little about Miller's 23-year-old victim, other than noting she had "diffused brain damage when born" and was "mildly retarded."

But her mother's memory is far more nuanced, and she has wondered over the years whether that was the right diagnosis.

She said her daughter was good at certain things, like reading, and was very verbal, but other things challenged her. For instance, if told an event would happen next week, she might not comprehend how long she'd have to wait for it.

Because of her difficulties, Lee Standifer didn't attend college and she didn't drive. Her mother said there weren't many options for someone with her daughter's special needs at the time, but they found a place for her to live at the Knoxville YWCA. From there, she would ride the bus to work at a food processing plant.

"It was repetitious work that would drive most of us out of our heads," but Lee Standifer liked the work, her mother said.  In turn, "They just loved her. She was never late and never missed a day."

According to court records, Miller was a drifter who had been living in the home of a man who picked him up hitch-hiking.

Lee Standifer had been dating him, and the two were seen together around town the evening of May 20, 1981. The young woman's body was found the next day in the yard of the home where Miller had been living. She had been beaten, possibly with a fire poker, and stabbed multiple times.

Miller later said he was on drugs at the time and didn't remember the crime. He was sentenced to death in 1982, and again in 1987 after the first sentence was thrown out. The jury found the murder was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel."

Asked to describe her daughter, Helen Standifer says what a positive person she was.

"She was a bubbly, happy character from the time she was very small. ... She used to embarrass her sister around Christmas time. She would put jingle bells on her shoelaces."

When she was little she used to always greet the mailman and have "big conversations" with him, her mother said.

Born in West Virginia, Lee Standifer spent most of her school years in Colorado, where she was active in 4H. Her mother still has a gold medal she won for backstroke in an early version of the Special Olympics.

The family moved to East Tennessee during Lee Standifer's senior year of high school. She loved going to Tennessee craft shows where her mother sold wire sculptures.

As a young woman, "She was very confident in who she was. She wasn't bothered by comparing herself to others," Standifer said.

Even after she started living at the YWCA, up until the time she was killed, she would spend most weekends at her parents' home in Farragut, about 20 miles west of Knoxville.

Helen Standifer says the pain of her daughter's loss never leaves.

"You're always missing that person. It's not as every day, not as constant a pain as it was early on, but it doesn't go away."

She honestly can't remember whether Miller ever offered some kind of apology.

She adds, "... So much of that, I just lived through -- barely."