LARGO — Pinellas Judge Nancy Moate Ley looked into the gallery at the back of her courtroom Monday afternoon and set her eyes on the family of a murdered man.
"In the long run," she told them, "I may have saved you some pain by making this decision."
Ley had overridden a jury's recommendation and sentenced a convicted murderer to life in prison without parole instead of to death row.
In April, a Pinellas jury recommended by a 9-3 vote that Wilson Saintil, 54, be sentenced to death for the 2005 murder of Stephen Holmes, an assistant manager at Durango's Steakhouse in St. Petersburg.
Holmes, a 29-year-old father of a young son, was killed during a late-night robbery of the restaurant he managed. He was stabbed and cut more than 40 times, including six deep gashes to his neck that Ley described as some of the "most gruesome and disturbing" she had ever seen.
Judges are required to give a jury recommendation great weight in making their decision on death sentences, and they usually follow the jury's advice. But not always.
Holmes's family also wasn't pushing for the death penalty. In a letter to Ley, his father, William, said the family's religion is against capital punishment.
"As much as I want revenge for Stephen Holmes's murder, what I truly want is justice," the letter states. "I don't know if taking Wilson Saintil's life will make the loss feel better. Either decision you choose will not bring Stephen back to us."
Ley told the family that she made her decision based on the law and not because of their letter, though she found it touching.
Ley's decision will spare the family from years of appeals that are afforded to people sentenced to death row. Saintil will get some appeals, but not nearly as many as death row inmates.
Currently, 388 people sit on Florida's death row. The state averages only about two executions a year, so at that rate, most people on death row will die in prison of old age anyway.
Police said Saintil killed Holmes as he robbed the business of about $5,000, much of it in $100 bills. The next day, he began paying off debts, some with $100 bills.
Saintil worked as a prep cook and cleaned the restaurant after closing time each night. He and Holmes were friends.
Police found Saintil's bloody fingerprint on a file folder in Holmes' office. Drops of blood that contained his DNA also were found on a prep table.
Saintil's defense lawyers argued that he should be spared the death penalty for many reasons, including that he had a 63 IQ. He had been abandoned by his mother in Haiti at a young age and had a hard childhood.
As an adult, Saintil had three sons and was a good father, they said. He also attended church.
Saintil maintained his innocence to the end, even after Holmes' sister, Christina Broadwell, read a letter in court Monday asking him to admit what he had done. "I want to forgive you if you would only ask," she said. "I will not allow hate to fester in my heart."
Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 892-2359 or email@example.com.