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CLEVELAND — An Ohio sex offender was convicted Friday of killing all 11 women whose remains were found in his home and buried in his backyard, bringing closure to a case that horrified the city of Cleveland.
Anthony Sowell, 51, was convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping, tampering with evidence and abuse of a human corpse in the 11 deaths. He now faces the death penalty.
"We do deserve this justice," said Denise Hunter, whose sister, Amelda, was found buried in Sowell's back yard in plastic garbage bags. "I'm so glad that finally, on July the 21st, that all of our families can rest assured — and all of our loved ones can rest assured — that peace has come to our families."
Most of the victims' families slipped out a side entrance of the courtroom, preferring to avoid making any comment about the verdict. When Sowell was convicted of murdering Tonia Carmichael, who was strangled with an electrical charger, Carmichael's mother and daughter clung to each other and wept as they rocked back and forth in the front row.
The jury deliberated for just over 15 hours before announcing the verdicts.
Sowell, dressed in a gray polo shirt and dark slacks, closed his lips tightly, looked straight ahead and barely moved as the first aggravated murder verdict was read. Deputies immediately cuffed his hands in front of him. After standing through the verdicts covering one victim, Sowell sat down, his chest heaving as he pushed himself back in the chair.
Most jurors avoided looking at Sowell, and instead watched the judge read the verdicts. Two jurors wiped away tears and a few swiveled in their chairs to look at sobbing relatives of victims.
When the jury left the room, Sowell raised his clasped, cuffed hands high in the air.
None of the attorneys commented afterward because a gag order remains in place until after Sowell is sentenced.
The jury sat through weeks of disturbing and emotional testimony as the prosecution made its case against Sowell. 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 in Sowell's home and backyard.
"Some of it was very gross and, you know, devastating to hear," Hunter said. "But I already accepted peace when we found out about the murders. Some of it I didn't want to know, but peace was already settled in my heart."
The 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.
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. Most were strangled with household objects and had traces of cocaine or depressants in their systems. One woman's skull was found in a bucket in the basement.
All of the victims were black, as is Sowell. He was acquitted of only one count in the 83-count indictment: a charge of aggravated robbery connected to one of the women he was convicted of attacking.
Sowell was also convicted of rape, attempted murder, kidnapping and felonious assault in attacks on two other women who survived. He was convicted of attempted murder, attempted rape, kidnapping and felonious assault in an attack on a third woman who also survived.
During the trial, several women gave grueling testimony of alleged attacks by Sowell, telling the court how they had managed to escape. One woman, who said she was brutally raped by Sowell, testified that she had seen a headless body in his home.
Prosecutors also showed an eight-hour taped interrogation of Sowell after he was first arrested.
During the interrogation, Sowell let out a cry of anguish and buried his head in his hands as two detectives pressed him to explain how the bodies ended up in his house in a drug-ridden neighborhood on the east side of town.
"It had to be me," Sowell said in the video, rubbing his head with his hands. "I can't describe nobody. I cannot do it. I don't know. But I'm trying to."
Sowell told detectives during the interrogation that he heard a voice that told him not to go into a third-floor bedroom where two bodies were found. He also told them about "blackouts" and "nightmares" in which he would hurt women with his hands. He told detectives that he began losing control of his anger about the time the victims started disappearing.
When one detective described a body that was found in his basement, Sowell became visibly upset again in the video.
"I guess I did that, too," he said. "'Cause nobody else could've did it."
The defense declined to call any witnesses. The strategy left unanswered a central question in the case: how could anyone live in a house with rotting bodies?
In his closing statement, defense attorney John Parker questioned the credibility of several witnesses, noting that some had struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues, and criticized police officers for failing to properly investigate when the victims' families tried to report them missing. He asked jurors whether the prosecution proved who actually killed the women — at one point suggesting that more than one person may have dragged the bodies around the house.
One woman's body, found in the basement under a mound of dirt, was nude and gagged at the mouth with her shirt tied behind her head. Most were bound at the wrists or ankles with shoelaces, cable wire and rope.
When the bodies were found, police concluded that a nearby sausage shop wasn't the source of a lingering stench as many neighbors believed. The family-owned business had spent $20,000 on plumbing fixtures, sewer lines and grease traps to get rid of the odor.