Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Jurors defend penalty process


Two weeks of gut-wrenching testimony.

Close to 30 pages of jury instructions.

About 15 hours of deliberations.

Deciding whether Richard Henderson Jr. was insane when he killed four family members in 2005 was formidable.

But the five-man, seven-woman jury had been chosen to determine the 22-year-old Myakka City man's fate.

And they followed the law, the jury's foreman, Heather Staples, said Monday.

"I know there are a lot of negative ideas about what the jury was thinking," said the 31-year-old Staples, a Bradenton nanny. "But there are steps many people don't know about, in how the decision was made - a legal process we were instructed to follow."

Last week, jurors found Henderson guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder, then recommended he spend life in prison. Presiding Judge Diana Moreland, who had the final say, agreed Friday. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty.

Henderson's defense team had contended he was temporarily insane when he swung the steel pipe that killed his parents, 82-year-old grandmother and 11-year-old brother in the family's mobile home on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 2005.

"There wasn't anyone who didn't say he had a problem - it's the extent of the problem that was in dispute," said Jennifer Joynt-Sanchez, one of Henderson's three public defenders.

Jurors "listened to hours and hours of testimony regarding his mental state and found that his moral culpability was less than someone who should be executed," she said.

The process

A jury's verdict, by law, is based solely on what is presented at trial.

"That's the system - we have a system and it works," said Joynt-Sanchez.

Chris Slobogin, a criminal law professor at the University of Florida, said it is unfair to criticize a jury unless people are familiar with all the evidence in a case.

"My guess is the public reads about the offense and thinks this is the perfect candidate for the death penalty, but they don't have access to his background, his mental state and other mitigating factors," Slobogin said. "This jury did and balanced the mitigators against the aggravators and decided this isn't the worst of the worst."

The verdict

All 12 jurors agreed Henderson suffers from a mental illness, Staples said in an interview with the Herald.

"We broke down the definition of insanity, word for word, and applied his testimony through his confession and decided he was legally sane," Staples said.

Under the law, people are considered insane when they had a mental infirmity, disease or defect and, because of this condition, did not know what they were doing or its consequences; or, although they knew what they were doing, did not know it was wrong.

"We felt pretty much that the degree of the crime and the actions carried out (on his parents and grandmother) were bad enough to find him guilty of premeditated murder," Staples said.

Jurors convicted Henderson of second-degree murder in the death of his brother, whom Henderson attacked first, because they did not feel beyond a reasonable doubt that he had planned the death, Staples said.

"But once he started, he had the opportunity to reflect," Staples said.

Medical records, along with witness and expert testimony, also factored in the verdict, Staples said.

A psychiatrist testified that a PET scan taken of Henderson's brain in August 2006 indicated an abnormality consistent with problems including schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, a brain injury or a combination.

In 2001, Henderson was convicted of possession of a firearm. Officials say he and two other Lakewood Ranch High School students had entered into a suicide pact. The state did not file additional charges against Henderson because prosecutors found he was mentally unstable and needed professional help.

The punishment

After hours of determining his guilt, it took the jury fewer than 10 minutes to decide on a recommendation for Henderson's punishment. Staples said nine jurors voted for life and three voted for death.

The brevity of the deliberations stemmed from conversations the group had earlier while determining whether to convict Henderson, Staples said. Jury members had discussed issues that would affect the penalty phase.

"In looking at it, a majority of us found that the death penalty was not appropriate in this case," Staples said.

For Staples and the majority who voted for life, these mitigating factors stood out:

• Henderson's criminal history: As far as the jury knew, he did not have a violent past.

• His love for his family: "Not one witness said he had (serious) problems with his family," Staples said. "There was clear testimony all around he loved them."

• His mental illness: "He didn't get the care he needed," Staples said, referring to Henderson's psychiatric history. "Some, he sabotaged or didn't want, yeah, but he was a kid and there was some responsibility on his parents and society to help him."

Some testimony during the punishment phase of the trial also had an impact on why the jury did not recommend death, Staples said.

For example, Henderson's grandfather, Loyal Stringer, described Henderson as "good guy."

"It's a tragic loss, but when his grandparents took the stand and proved they could still love him despite what has happened - that speaks toward what we had already thought." Staples said. "That confirms our belief he wasn't a cold, calculating monster."

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