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CLEVELAND — Jurors who convicted a man of killing 11 women and leaving the remains in his home and yard said the words of the women who escaped his house of horrors helped persuade them to recommend the death penalty.
Anthony Sowell, 51, was convicted last month of aggravated murder and dozens of other counts in the 11 deaths and three other sexual assaults. The same jury deliberated for less than a day before deciding Wednesday to recommend execution by lethal injection over life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The final decision will be up to Judge Dick Ambrose, who will impose the sentence Friday. He is permitted to reduce a death penalty sentence to life without parole, but such changes are rare in Ohio.
Sowell, with his hands cuffed to chains around his waist, stood up straight, blinking rapidly and rocking lightly on his heels as the verdicts were announced. As the final verdicts were read, his eyes narrowed and his eyebrows began to twitch.
Relatives of the victims seated in the court sobbed quietly and hugged each other. One woman in the front row sat with her hands folded in prayer.
Someone shouted “ha ha,” and the group applauded with their hands above their heads as Sowell was led from the courtroom. He turned to the families in the gallery and made a stiff bow before he was led away.
Sowell’s execution would be years off, but Dorothy Pollard, whose niece Diane Turner was one of the victims, said she would like to see it happen immediately. “Kill him tonight. He don’t deserve to live,” she said.
Donnita Carmichael, whose mother, Tonia, was killed by Sowell, said, “Justice finally. Everybody’s happy.”
Vanessa Gay said she wonders whether Sowell feels any remorse. Gay testified that she was attacked by Sowell in 2008 and saw a headless body in the house.
“Does he feel shame? Does he feel anything?” she said. “I want him to hurt, not physically. If he has a soul, I want him to hurt.”
The Associated Press generally does not identify sexual assault victims, but Gay has spoken out publicly about her ordeal.
Gay met with jurors in the courtroom, thanking them after they said the testimony of her and other survivors touched them the most.
“I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Gay said as several jurors wiped tears.
The gripping testimony of Gay and other survivors was invaluable, according to one juror. “You had the living testimony of those victims,” the juror said.
The jurors spoke to reporters after the verdict, withholding their names for privacy and security reasons.
The panelists spoke separately but chimed in together, “No, no,” when asked if Sowell’s apology in court Monday helped him. Jurors said the statement, meant to spare his life, appeared rehearsed and lacked remorse.
“We felt there was nothing there,” a juror said.
Sowell had told the jurors that he didn’t know what happened to the women and couldn’t explain it.
“The only thing I want to say is I’m sorry,” Sowell told the jury. “I know that might not sound like much, but I truly am sorry from the bottom of my heart.”
One juror said the jury’s visit to the Sowell house before testimony began gave her an overwhelming sense of sadness.
“I started to cry,” she said. “I knew something horrible happened in that house.”
The murdered women began disappearing in 2007, and prosecutors say Sowell lured them to his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman’s report that she had been raped there.
Some family members of the victims had pushed for a plea deal that would have allowed Sowell to get a life sentence and the victims to avoid the emotional ordeal of a trial.
Assistant Prosecutor Richard Bombik said he understood, but disagreed with, those concerns.
“This was a story that had to be told. You can’t sweep the facts of this case, the atrocities of this case, under the carpet by means of a plea,” he said “You can’t do that. It has to be told.”
One of Sowell’s two defense attorneys, Rufus Sims, declined to characterize his client’s response to the jury’s recommendation.
“We move on to the next phase,” he said.
During the sentencing phase, Sowell’s attorneys had tried to humanize him with a series of witnesses who painted him as growing up in a deeply troubled home. A mental health expert hired by the defense told jurors that Sowell suffers from several mental illnesses.
Defense attorney John Parker had said Sowell deserved to live because of his troubled childhood in an abusive home, his service in the Marine Corps, his job history and his good behavior while serving 15 years in prison for attempted rape.
Prosecutors countered with mental health experts who said Sowell had normal brain function.
Many of the women found in Sowell’s home had been missing for weeks or months, and some had criminal records. They were disposed of in garbage bags and plastic sheets, then dumped in various parts of the house and yard. All that remained of one victim, Leshanda Long, was her skull, which was found in a bucket in the basement.
Most of the victims were nude from the waist down, were strangled with household objects and had traces of cocaine or depressants in their systems. All the victims were black, as is Sowell.
The jurors sat through weeks of disturbing and emotional testimony before convicting Sowell of 82 counts for the 11 murders and attacks on three women who survived.
They saw photographs of the victims’ blackened, skeletal corpses lying on autopsy tables and listened to police describe how their bodies had been left to rot around Sowell’s home.
The jury heard during the sentencing phase that Sowell had a prior sexual-assault conviction in 1989 for attempted rape, for which he was incarcerated until 2005. Any mention of it was withheld during the trial to avoid prejudicing jurors.