More than 20 relatives and friends of Nicole Ayres, a Deptford High pitcher stabbed to death on Sept. 13, 2010, attended the hearing. Among them was State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington), a longtime victims' rights advocate.
The hearing was the culmination of a case in which the Westville family campaigned to stop Superior Court Judge James W. Palmer Jr. from sentencing Headley to 30 years, the minimum for murder.
Relatives created a website and an online petition signed by more than 6,000 people, including members of national victims' advocacy organizations.
Though Palmer initially said the sentence was appropriate in return for Headley's murder plea, he changed his mind after reviewing Headley's file and a brief from the Burlington County prosecutor, who recommended a life sentence.
The harsher term was warranted because of the "depravity" of the crime, during which Headley stabbed his victim 36 times with a pocket knife, the judge said. Another factor, he said, was Headley's criminal record.
Headley, 30, of Southampton, pleaded guilty last month after a new plea arrangement. He had met Ayres, 22, at a party and texted her a few weeks later asking that she meet him. Authorities said Headley killed her after an argument at a desolate soccer complex in his neighborhood shortly after midnight Sept. 13, 2010.
He was convicted in 2006 of endangering the welfare of a child for fondling an 11-year-old girl he met at a skating rink.
Headley "gave all of us a life sentence," Rick Ayres, the victim's father, said during the hearing as he described the loss to his family. He would have preferred Headley received life, too, he said, though he knows Headley may not live long enough to complete his sentence.
Nicole Ayres had been an All-South Jersey athlete at Deptford High and Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year in 2007 at Fordham University. She planned to go into coaching and would have "impacted a lot of young people's lives," her father said.
His wife, who cradled the urn when she was allowed to return to the courtroom, stood before the judge and demanded that Headley tell her how many times he stabbed her daughter before Nicole stopped screaming.
Others begged Headley to reveal his reason for killing Nicole Ayres.
"Just tell me why this happened, for my own peace," pleaded Nicole Terreri, the victim's best friend.
"I'm terribly sorry for what happened," Headley said simply when it his turn.
He showed no emotion during the nearly two-hour hearing, during which he stared straight ahead or looked down. When he was brought into the room in shackles, he made eye contact with his sobbing mother, Cammy, and nodded.
"Something happened that day, and he had some kind of breakdown," his mother suggested to Palmer. The day's events remain a mystery to the Headleys, too, said sister Christa.
"My family is so deeply sorry, and we don't know what happened and never will," she said.
Headley has a disability and had been prescribed drugs for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to his public defender, Cedric Edwards.
The attorney asked the Judge Wednesday to consider a lesser sentence, saying Headley confessed to his grandmother and mother after the murder. He then ran out of his mother's house and jumped in front of an oncoming truck because he "recognized what he had done and attempted to remove himself from this Earth," Edwards said.
Headley deserved a strict sentence partly to protect society, countered Assistant Prosecutor Kathleen E. Dohn. Not only did he stab the victim repeatedly on the head, neck, and torso, but close friends described him as having "a violent temper," she said.
Headley has a criminal record that includes seven municipal offenses, including assault, she said.
Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.