BOWLING GREEN - Sobbing from the time he entered a Wood County courtroom yesterday shackled at his hands and feet, a Cygnet man admitted to killing his estranged girlfriend, then told family members he didn't expect their forgiveness. He couldn't forgive himself, he said.
"Tuck, Sara," Mark Stephenson said to his two children, Tucker, 14, and Sara, 15, who were in the courtroom. "I love you, and I hope you get the help you need."
Stephenson, 47, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder for the Sept. 29 stabbing death of his children's mother, Sandra K. Smith, 48.
Common Pleas Judge Reeve Kelsey imposed the mandatory sentence for the crime: life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years. He added a consecutive 11-month prison term for Stephenson's conviction last year on a felony count of domestic violence, meaning Stephenson won't be eligible for parole for nearly 21 years.
The domestic violence case stemmed from an April, 2004, incident in which he grabbed his then-14-year-old daughter by the hair, neck, and throat and pulled her into the house after an argument outside. Because Stephenson had been convicted in 2002 of misdemeanor domestic violence, the case became a felony.
Ms. Smith's sister, Beverly Wiley of Virginia Beach, Va., said after yesterday's sentencing that she believed her sister was dead because Stephenson had wanted her to change her story about what had happened with their daughter, and she refused.
"That's why they were together that day. That's what they were talking about," Ms. Wiley said.
She said she was shocked that 20 years to life was the harshest penalty Stephenson could receive.
"When someone stabs somebody 18 times and then cuts their throat after they pull out the knife, I don't think the sentence was near what it should have been," she said. "I think he should've gotten the electric chair."
Assistant Wood County Prosecutor Gwen Howe-Gebers said the case did not meet the criteria required to pursue the death penalty, in part because the murder did not occur during the commission of another felony.
Because the killing was premeditated, the prosecutor's office sought an aggravated murder charge, which Stephenson agreed to plead guilty to in a bill of information. He waived his right to a grand jury and trial.
"There was no point in taking it to trial," Assistant Prosecutor Gary Bishop said. "He pled to what we would've sought at trial."
Prosecutor Ray Fischer said Stephenson received the maximum penalty allowed by law.
"Was there a plea? Yes. Was it a bargain? No," Mr. Fischer said. "We were ready to present to a grand jury 20 years to life and that's what he pled to."
Ms. Howe-Gebers said the evidence would have shown that Stephenson and Ms. Smith were at her home on State Rt. 105 near Pemberville Sept. 29 arguing when Ms. Smith told him their relationship was over.
Ms. Smith told Stephenson she was driving him home, and as she got ready, he got a knife, placed it in a bag, and put it in the car, Ms. Howe-Gebers said. Ms. Smith's half-sister, who was in the car with the couple, would have testified that they continued to argue, and when they got to Stephenson's mother's house on State Rt. 25, Ms. Smith asked her to go inside and call 911.
By the time sheriff's deputies arrived, Ms. Smith had been stabbed to death inside her car. Stephenson admitted to killing her after deputies apprehended him a few hours later.
In a brief statement in court, Stephenson said he was "sorry for what I did to Sandra. I want to apologize to everyone I hurt."
Ms. Wiley said the couple's two children remain in foster care. In her remarks to the court, she said her sister was a talented photographer, a smart woman who didn't deserve to die.
"I love her," Ms. Wiley said. "I kissed her before I closed the casket and told her I would be here for her."
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