MADISON COUNTY, Ala. – A jury has recommended Christopher Henderson be sentenced to death. He was convicted last week of killing five people in 2015, including his nine-months pregnant wife, before setting the family’s New Market home on fire.
They voted to sentence him to death 15 times, one for each of the murder counts.
This case is tragic in part due to the number of victims. Madison County Chief Trial Attorney for the DA’s Office Tim Gann said he hopes this is a once-in-a-lifetime case.
From jury selection to Tuesday’s penalty phase vote, the trial lasted more than 3 weeks. Gann was joined by other prosecutors on the case including Shauna Barnett. He says the work, which began in 2015 was worth it.
“Once you meet this family, and once you see what happened it doesn’t bother anybody to do the work. We were willing to wait as long as it took. It’s been six years, we would’ve waited another six years if that was necessary,” Gann said.
Defense Attorney Bruce Gardner said the ‘hard facts’ of the case were difficult for everybody involved, the jurors, especially faced a very tough task.
“We asked these people to do a lot, these jurors, they were here, and the testimony, which you all saw, was gripping at times, grotesque at times, really tough to stomach, they pulled through. I think they did the best they could and what they thought was justice,” Gardner said.
Gann and the Smallwood family said they were happy and satisfied with the verdict.
“It’s hard to express how much we appreciate what the jury has gone through. We tried to warn them, we tried to talk to them because going through this case, I know it was hard for Shauna and I both to sit down and review it. I could only do it in small increments. And this is what we do every day. To have them come off the street and have to be subjected to this, and for them to be subjected to this, we’re in week four now, it’s really a testament to good people doing their duty,” Gann stated.
There are 169 people on death row in Alabama. Christopher Henderson, if ultimately sentenced to death by Madison County Circuit Judge Chris Comer, would be 170th on the list.
Asking jurors to consider the death penalty is usually very controversial. The Madison County DA’s Office argues it’s the only option in this case.
“The death penalty is not for every case, we, we seek it very sparingly. For good reason because it is the ultimate penalty, but I believe that the reason that we have it still on the books, is to speak to cases like this. That life without, it’s just not enough and really, the death penalty is just not enough, considering what they did, but I think it was important for, them to come back and recommend that,” Gann explained.
Gann has been open about the state wanting the death penalty for Henderson. But Henderson’s Defense Attorney Bruce Gardner is conflicted by the state’s laws about how many jurors it takes to sentence a person to death.
“In every other jurisdiction in the United States that has a death penalty requires a unanimous verdict. Even in the federal system. With ours at 11 to one it’s just wrong. I mean that there’s no decision more important than that. So, unanimity ought to be required, but you know the facts of this case were just really, really hard and pulled it. Everybody understands the emotion involved in it. And that’s all I can say about that aspect of it,” Gardner stated.
As the trial continued, testimony was shared about Henderson having a grudge against Kristen Smallwood’s father, but the extended planning and the scale of violence against Kristen and her family is astounding. Even after all of the evidence that was presented, attorneys said it still doesn’t make any sense.
“When I first took this case, I was at least, thinking, that there has to be some sort of underlying mental health issue with him. And there weren’t any. That’s astonishing, considering the severity and the gravity of the actions he took,” said Henderson’s Defense Attorney Bruce Gardner.
The victims included a pregnant woman and her mother, along with three children, who were shot, or stabbed and the house was set on fire.
“It’s hard to fathom the mindset that plans something like this for weeks on end, knowing what the results going to be,” said Chief Trial Attorney Tim Gann.
Henderson’s co-conspirator Rhonda Carlson testified that they planned the crime. She blamed Henderson for the killings. The defense said she was chiefly responsible. In court, neither showed much emotion.
“She was a part of that, just like he was. Just her affect, her demeanor, it was so void of emotion. And I don’t know why that is. Because, to think about this case, to think about what they did, it’s really hard to face,” Gann said.
News 19 asked attorney Bruce Gardner if Henderson ever expressed any remorse. “I’ve got to leave that one alone. And for attorney-client reasons. But, the guy you see is him. And that’s best I can say,” Gardner said.
Some would argue no one’s opinion of what’s taken place matters more than the victims’ family. The people who have felt the loss for upwards of six years.
“There is evil in this world. But we must overcome it,” said Keith Smallwood, Kristen Smallwood’s brother.
Keith Smallwood was the first family member to arrive when his parents’ home was burning to the ground. After the penalty phase of the trial, he spoke to reporters. He quoted the bible as it relates to his opinion of Henderson’s fate.
“Genesis 9:6 says whoever sheds man’s blood by man his blood shall be shed for in the image of god he made man.”
He was joined by his sister, Kelly Smallwood-Sokolowski. Kelly is the mother of the one-year-old boy who was killed. Both siblings lost their mother, a nephew, a niece, and a sister the day of the murders. The two said they have leaned on their faith to cope with this unimaginable loss.
Five of their family members were killed; Kristen Smallwood, her unborn baby Loryn Smallwood and 8-year-old son Clayton Chambers as well as Jean Smallwood and one-year-old Eli Sokolowski.
“Eli, the love of my life, my one and only child,” said Kelly Sokolowski.
During the penalty phase of the trial, Kelly told the court that she has been going to counseling since her baby and family were killed.
Keith Smallwood made sure he was in court every day, facing defendant Christopher Henderson, despite the difficult details of the case.
“I’m not going to allow him to not see me there. I don’t know if he cares, or whether it matters to him, probably not, but it does to me. To let him know I’m not going anywhere. I’m here, they’re not here to fight for themselves, but I am. And he’s going to have to look at me every single moment he comes in there. And for me that’s what drove me, was that,” he stated.
The brother and sister believe their family was also watching from above.
“These were people who were happy to be alive and part of a strong family and we all loved each other so it’s been hard but it’s also been, we’ve been resolute because we know where they are and we know they’re smiling,” Keith Smallwood said.
That faith has given them strength beyond measure, believing one day, their family will be reunited.
“My daddy passed away back in September of last year and I had a dream and my daddy was holding Eli in that dream. I know that I will see them again that’s one thing that was taken away from me that I’m thankful for. I’m not scared of death anymore because I know what’s waiting on me,” Kelly Sokolowski said.
Henderson will be officially sentenced on October 14. Judge Chris Comer said he won’t make a final decision on sentencing until both sides present their case that day.
Henderson will be held in custody without bond until then.