Nov. 2, 2006 | 3:28 p.m. ET

The murder of a lovely teacher (Ellen Sherman, Dateline producer)

From the start, the murder of Mary Lynn Witherspoon was a story that I couldn’t forget. The crime involved a gracious and beautiful woman, Mary Lynn Witherspoon, a French teacher known for her gentleness and generosity. Moreover, this brutal murder had taken place in the area known as South of Broad street.

Mary Lynn Witherspoon

The first time I visited Charleston I understood. Charleston is a jewel of a city with hundreds of architecturally stunning homes, many dating from the 1800s. It is a slow, genteel place where horse drawn carriages continually crisscross the cobblestone streets of the exclusive South Of Broad street neighborhood. Every yard is neat and orderly, every house seems a show place. It is such an unlikely scene for a grisly murder. 

And the victim herself seemed like the last person that would have inspired murderous feelings in anyone. She had been not only beauty pageant-beautiful, but a long-time presence in Charleston society. In many stories, the family speaks highly of their murdered loved one. But in this story, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t speak about Mary Lynn in glowing terms. Friends, fellow teachers, her principal, even former boyfriends all painted the picture of a woman who could have spent her days lunching and shopping but instead chose to teach and share her love of French with children. ( Click here to watch Mary Lynn's daughter and a family friend talk about her. )

When I investigated the story further what struck me was how inevitable and yet avoidable this lovely teacher’s murder seemed to be. She was stalked by someone she had known all his life. It was not hard to understand that when this person dogged her footsteps for nearly two decades, Mary Lynn tried to be gracious and wouldn’t press charges. I wondered how I would have reacted if someone I had known all my life had done the same thing. I could sense for a moment how torn she must have been.

And then there was the fact that although Mary Lynn had insisted on being contacted when her stalker was released from a short stint in jail, that contact had been tragically mishandled. Instead of telling her that her stalker was being freed, the system had informed her that he had been "transferred."  It seemed there had been a hellish kind of bureaucratic mishap, what the Sheriff’s Department called a “clerical glitch.” I continually marveled that her family ever found a way to live with that.

Both her daughter Jane and her sister Jackie are amazing women. I know Jane stood by her aunt as Jackie tried to deal with her grief by getting a change in the stalking laws. That couldn’t have been easy for either of them, but the good news was that a law was passed and unlike most legislation, it had taken relatively little time. Among other things, it provided for more stringent monitoring of stalkers and it improved the notification system for their victims. It’s now known Mary Lynn’s Law. I know that her family takes some small comfort in the fact that Mary Lynn’s tragic death caused some positive change.

Loved by many, attractive, bright and kind — Mary Lynn Witherspoon lived a sweet, southern life anybody could envy — until a young man obsessed by her decided to take it away. Keith Morrison reports. The report airs Dateline Wednesday, Nov. 8, 10 p.m.


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