MADISON COUNTY, Ala. – The jury in Christopher Henderson’s capital murder case will reconvene Tuesday, after the holiday weekend, to decide whether or not to recommend the sentence of life without parole or the death penalty.
Thursday, the jury found Henderson guilty on 15 capital murder charges. Each charge is eligible for the death penalty.
Henderson was found guilty of killing five people at a New Market home in 2015 before setting it on fire. The victims were identified as Henderson’s 9-months-pregnant wife Kristen Smallwood, her unborn baby Loryn Brooke Smallwood, her 8-year-old son Clayton Chambers, her one-year-old nephew Eli Sokolowski, and Kristen’s mother, Jean Smallwood. Friday the penalty phase of the trial began.
Another hearing was held where attorneys for both the prosecution and defense argued their case as to which sentence Henderson should face. The state said Henderson should face the death penalty while his defense attorneys are pushing for life without parole.
The prosecution presented aggravating factors explaining why they believe Henderson should be given the death penalty. The state has to prove those factors beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense presented mitigating factors, which do not have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
The state called the mother of Eli Sokolowski to the stand. Eli is the one-year-old baby Henderson was found guilty of killing. Kelly Sokolowski told the court she held out hope her baby had been taken somewhere and was not burning in the house. She said she has been seeing a psychiatrist for severe anxiety and depression since her family was killed.
The defense called Henderson’s daughter, mother and sister to the stand. They all said they talked to Henderson from jail and shared memories about him to the court.
The defense also had a mitigation specialist point out that Henderson has had good behavior in jail, been respectful to the judge, and been employed for most of his life.
Henderson’s Defense Attorney Bruce Gardner seemed to attempt to tug at the jury’s emotions, asking them to make this decision from their heart. Reminding them there is potential for him to still have a relationship with his family from prison.
Gardner told the jury he used to be a prosecutor. He shared a story of a case he worked on where a man was sentenced to death for killing his wife. 20 years later, that man’s daughter came to Gardner’s office, said she had a relationship with her father, and forgave him. Gardner says he told the woman to talk to the governor’s office. He says the woman asked the state officials to commute her father’s sentence, but it didn’t work.
Prosecuting Attorney Tim Gann addressed the court after the story. He reminded the jury Henderson took out an entire generation of Smallwoods. He also reminded the jury of the gruesome nature of the crime scene, and told them today is about justice – not mercy.
Next week jurors will continue their deliberation before coming to a decision. But unlike the guilty verdict that convicted Henderson, longtime Huntsville area attorney Mark McDaniel, who is not connected to this case, says this will only be a recommendation to the judge.
“Since this case was before April 11th, 2017, the judge can override. If the jury were to come back and recommend life without parole tomorrow the judge can override that and give the death penalty,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel says he has never seen a judge in Alabama override a death penalty recommendation and choose life without parole.
The jury will resume their deliberation Tuesday morning at 9:00.