Fla. justices hearing appeal in couple's murder
Fla. justices hearing death sentence appeal in murder of couple who had 9 special needs kids
PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — An attorney for a man sentenced to die for the 2009 double murder of a Panhandle couple told the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday that the man should get a new trial because prosecutors prejudiced jurors by putting an imaginary script about what happened on the night of the killings in their minds.
Attorney Jose Rodriquez argued jurors convicted Leonard Patrick Gonazalez Jr. in the deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings and recommended the death penalty because a prosecutor told jurors the couples' final thoughts must have about the safety of their nine young disabled children who were in the home.
Gonzalez was accused of leading several men dressed like ninjas who robbed and killed the Billings in their home as their children slept or cowered nearby in 2009. The children suffer from such ailments as Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and autism.
Circuit Judge Nickolas Geeker sentenced Gonzalez after a jury voted 10-2 to recommend the death penalty.
Other defendants, including Gonzalez's father, received lesser penalties.
The invaders took a safe but it contained nothing of value. A second safe that they missed contained $164,000, court records show. The children were not physically harmed.
Gonzalez's attorney said prosecutors could not have known what the couple was thinking about before they were killed.
"He inserted an imaginary script into the mind of Mrs. Billings about what might happen to the children," Rodriquez said.
But Justice Charles Canady disagreed. Canady said it was logical to that Melanie Billings' last thoughts would have been fear for the safety of the young children, especially because she had just watched as her husband gunned down.
Rodriquez also argued that prosecutors should not have said that the couple was "executed," but rather described their deaths for the jury.
But Canady said Byrd Billings was clearly executed as the men sought information about his safe. Billings was shot twice in his legs and in his head.
"The facts in this case cry out that it was an execution-style killing," Canady said.
Attorney Meredith Charbula spoke for the prosecution and said that the Billings' children were real, not an imagined part of the crime. Carbula said surveillance cameras throughout the Billings' property showed that some of the nine children saw the masked men enter the home.
"The children were part of the aggravating circumstances of this case," Charubula said.
One of the children went to a nearby home for help after the masked men left.
"You don't need to imagine anything to know that the children add to the heinous, atrocious and aggravating circumstances of this case," Justice Barbara Pariente said.
The court will issue a written ruling on the case at a later date.
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