Jury set to consider life sentence without parole or death penalty for Lionel Francis

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - The same jury that convicted a Huntsville man Friday of capital murder must now recommend a sentence to the court: life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

Lionel Francis, 37, was found guilty of the May 2016 intentional shooting death of his 20-month-old daughter Alexandria Francis at the family’s home on Lockwood Court.

Francis told police the shooting was an accident. But the child’s mother, Ashley Ross testified at his trial Thursday that right after the shooting Francis told her, “Now you’ll have to live with what you made me do.”

The prosecution also introduced testimony from the state medical examiner who found that the child’s injury was the result of the .22 pistol being pushed hard against her forehead before it was fired.

The jury got the case Friday morning and deliberated for 3 hours before announcing the guilty verdict.

Beginning at 9 a.m. tomorrow the jury will hear the prosecution and defense argue over Francis’ fate in the “penalty phase” of the trial.

The prosecution wants the death penalty.

Madison County Assistant District Attorney Tim Douthit said it was clear from the time the child died that Francis would face a capital murder charge.

But a quirk in Alabama’s law is shaping the prosecution’s penalty phase arguments. Under state law the prosecution has to present one or more “aggravators,” basically elements of the crime that would warrant a death sentence.

At the time of the killing, the murder of a young child was not considered an ‘’aggravator” under state law. It is now, but that doesn’t apply in this case.

Instead, the prosecution is citing another aggravator – that Francis has a prior felony conviction for the use or threat of violence. That charge -- accomplice to an aggravated assault -- was in North Dakota in 2007.

The defense argued unsuccessfully before Madison County Circuit Judge Ruth Ann Hall that the charge shouldn’t be used as an aggravator because it is not even clear that it would be a felony in Alabama.

Douthit said it appears the prosecution is taking a new approach.

“As far as we can tell this is the first time anyone has tried to use a prior conviction from out of state as the basis for seeking the death penalty,” he said.

The defense said Friday afternoon it is still trying to decide if Francis will testify Tuesday. During his trial, he told the court he wanted to testify, but then changed his mind and didn’t testify during his trial.

He could testify, if he so chose, during the penalty phase.

The jury’s decision on the penalty – life without parole or the death penalty – will serve as a recommendation to the court, not be the final word. So-called judicial overrides in capital murder cases have ended in Alabama, but cases that began before the law changed in 2017 still give the judge the final word.

It takes 10 jurors out of 12 to recommend the death penalty. A jury vote with fewer than 10 jurors is considered a recommendation for a life without parole sentence.

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