HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — A Huntsville man convicted of 15 counts of capital murder could be given a death sentence Thursday in Madison County Circuit Court.
Christopher Henderson, 46, was convicted in July of fatally stabbing and shooting five family members in New Market in August 2015 and then setting the family’s house on fire. He had no criminal history of violence.
The victims included his 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.
The case was marked not only by its brutality and death toll, but by the fact that Henderson was already married to another woman, Rhonda Carlson, when he married Kristen Smallwood.
Those unusual circumstances came to light just a few days before the killings.
Henderson filed for divorce in July 2015, court records show. Kristen Smallwood filed for a protection order against him on July 29 and on July 31, she filed a notice to the court that a divorce wasn’t necessary. The filing argues she had learned Henderson was still married to Carlson. The killings took place on Aug. 4, 2015.
Carlson, who was arrested with Henderson and charged with capital murder, testified against him. She said he had practiced lock-picking and had purchased a .22 handgun as they plotted the killings.
A few weeks before the killings, Henderson inquired about the viability of a baby if the mother was killed. But Carlson testified she told Henderson she didn’t want to take care of another baby, so they just moved ahead with the killings.
Family security camera video from the day of the killings and fires shows Henderson creeping around the house, Smallwood and her 8-year-old son returning from school shortly before they were killed, Carlson walking to the property carrying a gas can, and later, a fire, that quickly grew so intense would-be rescuers couldn’t get inside.
A medical examiner testified that he reviewed the cause of death of each person and confirmed that some of the victims were still alive when the home was set on fire, though their injuries would have been fatal.
The autopsy of Henderson’s pregnant wife Kristen Henderson showed that she had been stabbed numerous times and shot in the neck. The unborn child was cut from her body and the autopsy showed multiple sharp force injuries to the infant.
Kristen’s mother, Jean Smallwood was shot numerous times and stabbed in the eyes. She died before the fire started. Eight-year-old Clayton was stabbed and unable to breathe, but still conscious when the fire started. One-year-old Eli was stabbed several times, but his cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning.
Henderson and Carlson were arrested the same day as the murders. They had gone to Ditto Landing to burn his bloody clothes before being arrested at her home.
The jury deliberated for nearly two days before finding Henderson guilty on all counts, including capital murder, arson, capital murder of a child and capital murder in the course of committing another crime.
The case originated in 2015, so Alabama’s 2017 end to the so-called judicial override in capital murder cases doesn’t apply. The jury in this case recommended a death sentence by an 11-1 vote, but Madison County Circuit Judge Chris Comer has the option to follow the jury’s recommendation and sentence Henderson to die, or override it and give him a sentence of life in prison without parole.
The hearing is set to begin at 9 a.m.
Carlson made a deal with prosecutors to avoid a death sentence in exchange for her testimony. She will face life in prison without parole. Carlson had testified that she was not involved in the stabbing or shooting of the victims.
If Henderson gets a death sentence, he joins a crowded list in Alabama. The state has 163 men and five women on death row.
The pace of executions has also slowed in recent years. Among the issues has been the lack of availability of drugs that have been used for lethal injection. In August, the state said it was close to completing a nitrogen gas system for executions.
Alabama’s prison system is at around 140 percent of capacity.
Based on Alabama Department of Corrections figures, the current average time on death row is 6,176 days, or just under 17 years.
The oldest prisoner currently on death row is 73 and the youngest death row inmate is 28.
Since 1977 when the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme court, 67 inmates have been executed in Alabama.