BATTLE CREEK, MICH. - The mother of a 5-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in 1994 says the man who confessed to the crime as a juvenile and was sentenced to life in prison should never be freed.
"This man is a monster," said Robin Buonodono. "He admitted he killed my daughter. I don't even call him Jason. His first name is devil."
Buonodono said she returned to Battle Creek this month for the first time since the trial to do what she can to keep Jason Symonds, who was 16 at the time of the murder, in prison forever.
"He is 39. Did he learn?" she asked. "I don't think he will learn until he is 100 and dying."
On Saturday, Buonodono and several friends visited Memorial Park Cemetery in Battle Creek to say a prayer and place stuffed animals and flowers on the tombstone of her daughter, Nicole VanNoty. A week ago Buonodono and about 30 supporters marched through the neighborhood where her daughter was killed to protest Symond's release.
"We coordinated everyone to say, 'We are Nicole's voice,'" Buonodono, 55, said. "I need to be heard, and I think this is the time. The Supreme Court is working against me and against a lot of people. This affected the whole community and is still affecting the whole community.
"My message is they need to rethink what they are doing," she said. "Hear my message. Hear what I have to say. He should stay in prison."
Symonds is one of eight people from Calhoun County sentenced as juveniles to life in prison without parole after homicide convictions.
He and the others are now seeking a chance to change their sentences to life with the possibility of parole after the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment.
The justices did not rule that the juvenile lifers should be released, but that they have the opportunity to meet with a parole board. Procedural questions have delayed decisions in many of the cases, and now local judges are awaiting a Michigan Supreme Court decision if judges or juries must decide if the sentences can be changed.
Symonds was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in 1995 after admitting at the age of 16 that he raped and then killed Nicole VanNoty with a hatchet and metal rod in an abandoned house on Upton Avenue on April 26, 1994.
Her naked body was found buried in a plastic bag in the backyard of the house. He confessed to a friend the next day and to police after his arrest and was convicted by a Calhoun County Circuit Court jury.
Symonds is housed at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.
Calhoun County Prosecutor David Gilbert said his office is opposed to any possible parole for Symonds.
"We are certainly against it," he said.
The prosecutor is not opposing all petitions to allow juvenile lifers to face a parole hearing and has agreed not to oppose re-sentencing Joseph Sanford, Jr., 35, and Terrence Kelly, 40, in September to a term of years for their roles as teenagers in separate Calhoun County homicides.
"It is one thing to say that a juvenile was the get-away-driver in a case that went bad and the kid driving had no clue the other guy was going to murder someone," Gilbert said. "It is another to pick up a child and take her in an abandoned house and murder her and molest her. This is not a case of making a bad choice. He had the intention of molesting a child and the intention of murdering a child, and he did that."
Symond's attorney, Sofia Nelson of Michigan's State Appellate Defender's Office, said the issue is not about the crime but about the defendant.
"I represent Jason Symonds, and his guilt is undisputed," Nelson said. "But the question before the court is whether the adult Jason Symonds is capable of rehabilitation. Every one of the cases involve a homicide, and they are all tragic. That is undisputed."
She said the issue is not the offense "but who they have grown up to be. Given their prison record and their demonstration of remorse, are they capable of rehabilitation? There is a lot more that needs to be looked at beyond the horrible offense and the tragic loss of life to the family.
"The child he was at 16 is not the adult he is today," Nelson said.
But Gilbert argues that Symonds, even at 16, made a decision about what he did.
"Our position is that the crime was heinous, and, no matter how old he was, he knew right from wrong and that it should not be done, no matter how immature he was."
Buonodono said during the march she had to be helped past the site where her daughter was killed, even though the vacant house has since been demolished.
She would rather remember her daughter when she was alive.
"She was a sweet baby girl," Buonodono said. "She was smart and spunky and prissy. She was easy to make friends with."
She still wants to know why Symonds killed her daughter.
"I want to know. I want to know why would you do this? Why?
"And don't tell me the devil made you do that. That is crazy. The devil would not make you do it."
After her daughter's death and Symond's trial, Buonodono moved to Florida. One of her sons, Nick, drowned in 2015, but another, Nathan, 29, lives near her.
"He ruined my family," Buonodono said. "My sons didn't have their sister anymore. Emotionally he messed me up. I have been on medication ever since he murdered my daughter. When I think about her last breath with a hatchet in her head, I want him to hurt like he hurt my daughter.
"I know nothing will bring back my daughter, but everybody wants him to rot there."
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