HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - After three hours of deliberation Friday a jury found a man charged with killing his 20-month-old daughter guilty of capital murder.
The capital murder trial for Lionel Francis started Thursday morning. The killing took place in May of 2016 at the Lockwood Court home Francis shared with his girlfriend, Ashley Ross, and their daughter Alexandria.
The prosecution rested Thursday afternoon and the defense rested Friday morning without calling any witnesses.
The defense told the court Thursday that Francis wanted to testify, against their advice. They asked the court to give them overnight to further discuss the issue with him. Friday morning Francis told the court he'd changed his mind and wouldn't testify Friday.
During closing arguments Friday morning, prosecutors told the jury all of the evidence in the case pointed to Francis intentionally shooting and killing his daughter. Following the verdict, Tim Douthit, Madison County assistant district attorney, said the state didn't have to prove a motive and that no motive could explain the shooting.
"The toughest part for me to get over, and probably for the jury I think to get over, was just the acceptance that somebody could be so evil in this particular case," he said. "The physical evidence was all there, the testimonial evidence was all there. From the word go it only pointed one way. But there is still that corner of your heart that wants to say, ‘This can’t be real,’ surely no parent would do this. I’m a parent, I couldn’t fathom doing something like this."
Francis told police the gun went off accidentally. Prosecutors argued he changed his story and the ballistics evidence contradicted his account.
Defense attorney Eric Wood argued that there was no evidence that Francis intended to kill his daughter. Intent is an element of a murder charge under Alabama law. The defense noted even the girl’s mother, Ashley Ross, who testified against Francis, said they had a good relationship prior to the shooting.
The defense also urged jurors to avoid getting caught up in the emotion of a sad and difficult case. Thursday prosecutors played the 911 call made by Ross after the shooting. Her screams and anguish filled the courtroom.
"Any time you’ve got a homicide with a child this young it’s going to rouse that gut-level instinct, our goal was to tamp that down as much as we possibly could," Gardner said.
Tim Gann, chief trial attorney for the Madison County District Attorney's office, told the jury the child’s fatal wound showed Francis' intent. He reminded the jury that the medical examiner testified the wound was caused by a gun being pressed hard against her forehead, before it was fired.
The jury didn’t take long to find Francis guilty.
"It’s not going to fix everything in that poor woman’s life," Douthit said. "That little girl is still dead and this is a measure of justice, and we’re pleased that the jury got to the same place that we did, but we’re just going to keep going from here."
The penalty phase in the case begins Tuesday. Prosecutors will argue to the jury they should recommend a death sentence for Francis. The defense will seek a sentence of life without parole.
The bulk of the trial was Thursday, a day marked by emotional testimony from the child's mother Ashley Ross.
During Ross’ testimony Thursday, prosecutors played two phone calls: her 911 call after the shooting and a phone call Francis made to her from jail on the day of their daughter’s funeral. The 911 call lasted several minutes and the sounds of Ross’ screams, anguish and fear reverberated around the courtroom. The jail call included Francis trying to tell Ross that he didn’t shoot their daughter, that the gun went off. An angry Ross told him repeatedly not to insult her intelligence.
Francis gave her a slightly different explanation for why the gun went off. He said his knee – which he’d previously injured and had surgery on – was hurting and he was moving to put the gun away under the mattress, when his knee buckled and the gun fired. Ross angrily rejected the account, pointing out that it’s not common to cock a gun just as you’re putting it away.
The prosecution’s last witness, Dr. Valerie Green, a state medical examiner, testified the nature of the child’s wound was consistent with a gun being pressed with force against her forehead and then fired.
The defense rested Friday morning before closing arguments. Prosecutor Tim Douthit argued against the accidental shooting defense. Douthit added there wasn't an apparent motive for Francis to kill his daughter, but that it didn't change facts.
The defense acknowledged the pain heard during Ross' 911 call and urged the jury to consider facts and law.
Updated at 4:40 p.m. by Brian Lawson to include details from Friday's day in court.