Justice can be denied, delayed and disappointing. Sentences of death, life without parole or even a set number of years are often as uncertain as trying to predict a tornado’s exact path.   

 

“We were satisfied with his ‘second chance’ being getting life without parole instead of the death penalty,” Jo Ann Nipper told the Arkansas Parole Board on a Wednesday morning in May, “and then now … he’s getting another chance — and maybe another chance after that. It just saddens us.”

 

Nipper, her cousin, Edie Thompson, and her nephew, Christopher Cameron, traveled to North Little Rock from El Dorado and were given 10 minutes to persuade the seven members who make up the parole board to keep Steven Wade Miller behind bars.

 

It has been 30 years since Leona Cameron was murdered. Christopher Cameron lost his mother, Thompson lost her sister, and Nipper lost her cousin.

 

“She was such a big part of our lives,” said Nipper, who did most of the talking before the parole board. “Memories that we had … just stopped at 21 years old. She had just turned 21, and that was all taken away. We didn’t get to know her as an older adult. She didn’t get to raise her kids. She’s got grandkids now.”   

 

Wade Miller has spent two-thirds of his life in prison because he shot and killed Leona Cameron during her shift at an El Dorado Subway sandwich shop. While it appeared at first to be a robbery gone wrong, detectives later identified a more intentional motivation for the murder, which will be shared in a moment.

 

Cameron was working alone and was less than an hour away from closing up the restaurant. She planned to quickly change clothes and join her cousin, Nipper, only seven months her senior, for a night of dancing at the Heritage Club next door on West Hillsboro Street, but the 16-year-old Miller, along with his 18-year-old pal, Heath Kennedy, walked in before she got the chance.

 

“He’s never really showed any kind of remorse,” Nipper told the parole board. “He just kind of laughed through [his trial]. We just don’t feel that he deserves that chance to be able to walk the streets when she can’t. I mean, she was pregnant — four months pregnant with her first baby girl.”

 

Born Alpha Leona Goode, Cameron’s short life had been marked by both joy and struggle. She dropped out of school in ninth grade, and by age 21, she had three boys and a daughter on the way.

 

Almost two years prior to her fateful final shift at Subway, Cameron and her two young sons moved to North Carolina with a new boyfriend, Willie Saunders. That was in August 1992. A month later, Saunders was charged with physically abusing Cameron’s oldest son. Because investigators determined that she did not do enough to stop him, Cameron was also charged with abuse. Both boys entered foster care.

 

Cameron tried to remain in North Carolina so she could have scheduled visits with her sons, Blake and Christopher, but with no money and no local support, she had to move back to El Dorado. There, she started to work on a plan to get her boys back. Part of that plan involved steady employment, and that is why she was working at Subway on March 5, 1994.

 

“She had a full-time gig,” Nipper said, “but she hadn’t been there but a few weeks. She hadn’t been there very long. She had started working there, and it was within a few weeks of Christopher’s second birthday. She was wanting to have enough money and everything to go to North Carolina and see him, and then, you know, that didn’t happen.”

 

Despite not remembering his mother, Christopher wanted to testify before the parole board about how the loss of his mother has negatively impacted his life, but his emotions prevented him from being able to speak. The board expressed appreciation for his presence nonetheless.

Steven Wade Miller, who was convicted of killing Leona Cameron at an El Dorado Subway and, along with Heath Kennedy, received a life sentence without the possibility of parole, became eligible for parole due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The suspects, Miller and Kennedy, share a birthday, December 13, but Kennedy is two years older. They also shared an obsession with the movie Menace II Society, which they watched the day before the murder. During the movie’s opening scene, two teens rob a convenience store and, in the process, kill the store’s owners. They then eject the store surveillance tape and take it with them, playing it proudly over the days that followed for anyone willing to watch.

 

That was the plan hatched by Kennedy and Miller — rob a store, kill the store employee and make off with the surveillance tape. Even though neither teen had a criminal record, it took investigators less than a week to zero in on the pair and arrest them. Prosecutors presented extremely strong cases, and ultimately, both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

 

“I mean, a movie is a movie,” said Cameron’s uncle, Wayne Goode. “If we copycatted every movie that comes out, this world would be really messed up. For those kids to say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool. I’m going to do that,’ something ain’t right with those kids. This whole going back and redoing things has really set me off against the judicial system, to be perfectly honest with you.”

 

Thompson, Leona’s older sister by three years, submitted 400 to 500 signatures collected around Union County and at change.org. All of those who signed the petitions are against Miller’s release.

 

Parole Board Chairwoman Lona McCastlain explained the board has three options: deny parole for two years, deny parole for one year or grant parole. The board’s decision was revealed May 28, past the deadline for this article. Enter “Arkansas Parole hearing decision search tool” online to find out the immediate future of Wade Miller. His inmate number is 107482.

 

Despite being the younger of the two, it was clear to investigators that Miller was the planner, leader and executioner of the operation. Miller fired the shots that killed Cameron, but because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it is cruel and unusual to sentence anyone under the age of 18 to a life in prison with no possibility of parole, it is Miller, not Kennedy, who has a chance at freedom. Kennedy turned 18 a matter of months before the murder.

 

“Kennedy? I don’t think we would ever have another problem with him if he were to get out,” said Union County Sheriff Ricky Roberts, who was an El Dorado detective in 1994 and investigated Cameron’s murder. “But Miller? I can’t say that about him. He’s bad.”

 

Cameron’s is not the only Arkansas case with such circumstances. Michael Hinkston was a matter of months past his 18th birthday when he and his 16-year-old friend, Tony Ray, decided to burglarize a residence in Crawford County. When 30-year-old Lisa Lewis came home during the burglary, Ray shot her three times with a shotgun. Both Ray and Hinkston were sentenced to life without parole, but as in the case of Miller, it is Ray who has a chance at getting out — despite pulling the trigger — because of his younger age.

 

“We really just want y’all to know the type of person that Leona was,” Nipper told the parole board. “She would give you the shirt off her back. The love she had for her children and her family and her dad. He died in 2011, and although I’m saddened that he passed away, I’m glad that he didn’t have to live to see this day, that we would have to come to y’all and beg y’all to please consider our pleas. I just don’t think he’s ready to be out in the free world.”

 

In that free world, earthly justice can be saddening and maddening, unpredictable and unfair. That is why Leona Cameron’s loved ones expressed hope that Wade Miller and Heath Kennedy will remain locked up and faith that a final judgment for the pair rests in higher hands.

Jason Pederson

For two decades, Jason Pederson served as KATV-Channel 7’s Seven On Your Side reporter. Now on the other “side” of his award-winning time on the news, he now serves as deputy chief of community engagement for the Arkansas Department of Human Services. His perspective-filled and thought-provoking column, “This Side of Seven,” publishes exclusively in AY About You magazine monthly.

 

READ ALSO: This Side of Seven: But God