NEW PORT RICHEY — When the guilty verdict was read, the family of Ann Parlato called out. They held clutched hands. They held white tissues and cried. Behind them, deputies involved in the case quietly celebrated with pats and fists.
After hearing a week of testimony about the beating and mutilation of Parlato, 94, in her Port Richey home, the jurors deliberated for five hours on Friday and found her lawn maintenance man, John Sexton, guilty of first-degree murder. Because the death penalty is an option, court will reconvene Tuesday for the sentencing phase.
Sexton, 49, did not respond when the verdict was read. He walked out with his hands cuffed, bent over and took a drink of water, and then thanked his lawyers.
"We feel ecstatic and very pleased," said Parlato's neighbor, Dori Cifeli. "We're relieved."
"My aunt had strong religion," said niece Jeri Barr, "so she was ready to meet her maker. But she was not ready to leave the earth yet."
In his closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis described the evidence in the grisly September 2010 murder. He talked about how Parlato's next-door neighbors heard a loud noise after midnight, saw Sexton in the window of her home and wrote down the tag number of his truck.
Sexton told detectives he went to her house around sundown to ask for more maintenance work. He said he went to a bar and then drove around and drank a beer, and got home at 10:30 p.m. When detectives questioned him hours after Parlato's body was found, he asked his wife Catherine what time he got home. She told detectives it was 2 a.m.
Then Halkitis got into the physical evidence. The blood stains on Sexton's clothes and DNA under Sexton's cuticles and fingernails, all matching Parlato. The cigarette butt in Parlato's trash can with Sexton's DNA.
"This guy's not a rocket scientist," Halkitis said. "If he was a rocket scientist he would've closed the blinds. He wouldn't have left cigarette butts around the house."
Defense attorney Dustin Anderson said there were inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the evidence. He said the DNA from Sexton's clothes was compromised because the evidence was mishandled when it was put into a plastic bag and into the trunk of a hot car. He said Parlato's DNA could have gotten on Sexton's hands when he was doing her lawn and she fell, and he picked her up.
"We know she was prone to falling," he said.
He said Parlato could have found Sexton's cigarette butt in the yard and put it in the garbage can herself. As for the neighbors, Anderson said they didn't mention the front end damage to Sexton's truck when telling police about it, and neighbor Devilyn Saunders couldn't pick Sexton out of a photo lineup.