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Hernando rampage: Jurors recommend death penalty for John Kalisz

BROOKSVILLE — After 57 minutes, a knock came from the jury deliberation room.

They had reached a verdict.

John Kalisz, wearing a blue suit and striped tie, remained slouched in his chair. As the defendant stared at a half-empty cup of water, a reporter approached him at the defense table and asked if he was sorry for what he had done.

Kalisz turned and looked up. Without expression or words, he nodded yes.

Minutes later, 12 jurors unanimously recommended that he be executed for murdering two Hernando County women.

On Jan. 14, 2010, Kalisz killed his sister, Kathryn "Kitty" Donovan, and her office manager, Deborah Tillotson, in Donovan's home on Wilhelm Road, west of Brooksville. He also shot his niece, Manessa Donovan, and Amy Green, an employee at Kitty Donovan's home-based business.

Deep sighs blended with quiet sobs as the verdict was read Thursday afternoon in the Hernando Circuit Court. Some people nodded and others smiled. Members of Tillotson's family, sitting in the second row, squeezed each other's hands. The victim's older daughter, Nicole DiConsiglio, struggled not to cry.

Kalisz didn't speak or even react while he listened to the announcement. His sisters, Becky Berarducci and Linda Pleva, entered the courtroom just moments later. Pleva held Kalisz's close friend, Tammy Debaise, as they wept. All three women testified on his behalf.

Kalisz's defense team, for a final time, will ask Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. to spare their client's life in a hearing next month. The sentencing is scheduled for March 6.

Some have argued that seeking the death penalty in this case was pointless because, due to his poor health, Kalisz may die in prison anyway.

"The sooner he dies, the better," said prosecutor Pete Magrino after the proceedings. "And I mean that."

The 57-year-old former roofer was already serving life in prison for the murder of Dixie County sheriff's Capt. Chad Reed, who was shot trying to arrest him that day two years ago in Cross City.

Reed's wife, Holly, had agreed to the deal because she wanted to spare her two young sons from a painful trial and years of appeals.

As the Hernando verdict approached Thursday afternoon, people asked her if the day had been especially hard.

"Today was nothing compared with what we live with every day," she said. "It's a constant reminder when you look at your children." The jury's decision, she added, was just.

Though the death penalty recommendation wasn't a surprise, it's unanimity is rare. Magrino has prosecuted capital trials for more than 20 years. This was the first of his cases in which no juror opposed execution. Many more infamous killers, including John Couey and Danny Rolling, did not receive unanimous recommendations.

Earlier in the day, Public Defender Devon Sharkey pleaded with jurors not to suggest the death penalty.

"A vote for mercy is always a legal vote," Sharkey said. "Don't measure him by the horrible things that happened one day in January 2010."

The lawyer presented a host of reasons that jurors should recommend a life sentence for Kalisz: his difficult childhood; his inability to handle emotional problems; his recovery from alcoholism; his years spent helping other addicts; his lack of support from family; his troubled mental state; his mobile home burning down days before the killings; and the help he could potentially offer fellow inmates.

Sharkey had also called a forensic psychologist, Dr. Peter Bursten, to help explain how those problems led to Kalisz's murderous rampage.

In Magrino's cross-examination, he began with three basic questions.

Is Kalisz competent?

Yes, the doctor said.

And he wasn't insane at the time of the murders?

Definitely correct.

Could he tell right from wrong?

"In my opinion," Bursten said, "absolutely."

When the day ended, Merritt adjourned the courtroom and spectators began to trickle into the hallway. Kalisz stood up moments later. He picked up his cup, finished the water, then shuffled out.

Times photojournalist Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Reach John Woodrow Cox at jcox@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432.

Hernando rampage: Jurors recommend death penalty for John Kalisz 01/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 26, 2012 11:02pm]
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