Wilson Saintil's sons huddled in the third row of the courtroom Friday, heads bowed, trying to hide the tears.
They'd tried to tell the jury about a father's love, how he'd counseled one to avoid the gangster rap lifestyle, the other to go to college. How they still needed him even now that he was in a jail cell.
But as the jury left to decide Saintil's fate — life or death — a veteran prosecutor asked jurors to look at pictures of another father and consider his death, his head nearly decapitated, more than 40 slice wounds on his arms, face and neck.
Prosecutor Bill Loughery asked for a minute of silence so that the jury might consider the time it took for Stephen Holmes, 29, to try to fight off Saintil and die at St. Petersburg's Durango Steakhouse in December 2005.
After deliberating for an hour, nine of the 12 jurors said Saintil, 54, should be put to death by lethal injection for murdering Holmes, an assistant manager at Durango. Only seven jurors were needed.
Saintil may still get a reprieve. Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley must decide, at a future hearing, whether to follow the jury's recommendation. The law requires that she give the jury's advice great weight.
As the verdict was read, Saintil's two sons appeared dazed, their tears gone. They declined to comment.
Holmes' relatives said afterward that they felt numb. Though they were pleased that the jury had found Saintil guilty, they said they had no strong feelings about his punishment. They preferred to remember Holmes, a popular St. Petersburg native who left behind a young son.
"Life in prison or death — none of it brings Stephen back," said his sister, Christina Broadwell.
The weeklong trial brought to light a young father's final night and a Haitian immigrant's plight. A Durango prep cook and dishwasher by day, Saintil cleaned three of the steak houses in the evenings. On a cold night in December 2005, he arrived at the steak house on Fourth Street N to mop the floors.
Hours later, an exterminator found Holmes in a pool of blood. The safe was open, and about $5,000 in cash was gone.
Saintil left behind a bloody fingerprint in the office and some blood droplets on the prep table. Within hours of the murder, he began paying off bills, including $1,240 for bedroom furniture.
On the witness stand Thursday, Saintil, a churchgoing man, denied that he killed Holmes and said he considered him a friend. The jury didn't believe him, finding him guilty later that night after five hours of deliberation.
Assistant Public Defender Michael Hays, trying to save Saintil's life, told jurors Friday to consider Saintil's character and background, his childhood without a mother in an impoverished Third World country, his brother who committed suicide, his low IQ, the jobs he worked night and day to support his family.
"The love he has for his family in his heart gives his life value," Hays said. "If you vote for lethal injection, you'll deprive his children of a father."
Holmes' family members said they believe he would have forgiven Saintil. But they also believe that Saintil must be punished.
"He didn't hold a grudge," Jennifer Holmes said of her husband. "People were too valuable to him. I know he loved Wilson. They were friends."
The family members said they have been praying about the situation and have been thinking of Saintil's family.
"It's all sad," Jennifer Holmes said. "I can't get them out of my head."
Times staff writer Chris Tisch contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8640.