Judge sentences Huntsville church pantry killer to life without parole

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - In a Tuesday afternoon hearing, Judge Karen Hall confirmed a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for Richard Burgin, the man convicted of killing two brothers at a Huntsville church's food bank.

A jury had already recommended the punishment, but Judge Hall had the ability to issue a death sentence regardless. Instead, she went with the jury's recommendation.

Judge Hall convened the hearing at 1:30 in the afternoon but quickly sent it into recess. She was displeased with the depth of the pre-sentencing report in the case. She gave the defense time to review it.

The judge expressed concern because the pre-sentencing report provides background on the defendant. However, the judge said the report on Burgin did not include details on PTSD treatment or other issues. Even when the hearing resumed, the attorneys spent time discussing the mental health history of Burgin, including psychiatric hospital visits and mental health diagnoses.

The victims' cousin told the court that the family wanted Burgin to hear he's being sentenced to death and that his crime was indescribable.

The prosecutors also urged the court to impose the death penalty. The defense asked the court to follow the jury' recommendation.

Burgin, 54, was convicted of capital murder in May 2017 of fatally stabbing Anthony and Terry Jackson at the West Huntsville United Methodist Church food bank. A capital murder conviction carries one of two possible sentences, life in prison with no parole or the death penalty.

The jury deliberated about an hour before recommending life in prison for Burgin, by an 8-4 vote.

But in a wrinkle in Alabama law, Judge Hall gets the last word on sentencing. The Alabama Legislature this year ended the longstanding practice of so-called “judicial override.” That’s where the jury makes a sentencing recommendation in capital murder cases, but the judge gets the last word.

The Alabama Legislature voted to end the practice, but also said the ban wasn’t “retroactive,” meaning cases that began before the law was changed – like Burgin’s – still operate under the judicial override model.

The case is being prosecuted by Tim Gann, chief trial attorney for the Madison County’s District Attorney’s Office and Assistant DA Randy Dill, with Larry Marsili and Chad Morgan representing Burgin.

The prosecution had urged jurors to sentence Burgin to die, arguing the brothers’ deaths included multiple stab wounds and suffering before they died. Prosecutors said the two men were killed in a robbery attempt that yielded, at most, a wallet and a cell phone.

There were no witnesses to the killing of the Jackson brothers. The prosecution’s case hinged on a handful of items found in bushes by a police K-9 unit, a short distance from the church.

The defense argued the items that were linked to Burgin -- his fingerprints were found on a church bulletin and his DNA was on a red plastic cup – weren’t linked to the knife or a bloody towel found in the bushes by the K-9.  The knife and towel had victim’s blood on it, but no DNA from Burgin.