NEW PORT RICHEY — Jurors on Monday heard about John Sexton's difficult life: the trauma of childhood abuse and losing his brother, his struggle with mental illness and alcoholism, the long-term exposure to toxic chemicals that may have harmed his brain.
Sexton was a damaged man before he brutally murdered 94-year-old Ann Parlato in her Port Richey home in September 2010, the defense argued. Defense attorney Byron Hileman urged jurors to consider those factors in weighing whether Sexton should live or die.
"Nobody in their right mind could deny what a horrible crime this is," Hileman told jurors. "That's not even debatable. But the cause is important. It is your duty to weigh the factors carefully. That's how Florida law attempts to determine when the death penalty is appropriate."
Prosecutors are seeking death for Sexton, 49, who was convicted last month of first-degree murder in one of the most gruesome crimes that Pasco deputies could remember. Parlato's face was crushed beyond recognition, her ribs broken, her spine dislocated. Her injuries indicated she had been sexually assaulted before her death, and stabbed and burned afterward.
Sexton did yard work for Parlato, a kind-hearted widow who loved visiting with friends and cooking for neighbors.
In the death penalty phase, jurors listened to evidence and will recommend whether Sexton should get life in prison or death. A judge will make the final call and must give the jury's recommendation great weight.
The defense asked to delay the hearing because one of Sexton's attorneys was absent due to a medical emergency. When that motion was denied, Hileman asked to withdraw from the case, citing his concerns that he could not provide an adequate defense.
Sexton also asked that his lawyers be dismissed. "I don't think I'm getting adequate defense in this matter," he said. Circuit Judge Mary Handsel denied all of those motions, and the jury was brought in.
Hileman outlined a list of mitigating factors that, he argued, should make the death penalty less likely. He noted that Sexton, who had a history of alcohol abuse, was intoxicated during the time of the murder. He said Sexton was abused as a child by his parents and lost his 14-year-old brother, Dewey, to an accidental shooting in 1983, when Sexton was 19. He pointed to Dr. Valerie McClain, a licensed psychologist hired by the defense, who recently diagnosed Sexton with bipolar disorder.
McClain described how a person with bipolar disorder can get caught up in his own thoughts.
"If there is alcohol involved, the ability to reason is lessened," McClain testified. "With regard to the defendant's ability to appreciate the criminality of his actions — I don't think that ability is there."
By outward appearances, Sexton had a normal life for a while, his attorney said. He got married and divorced and married again. He cared for his children and was a talented artist, worked as a sports journalist and produced programs for public access television, Hileman said.
"He was a man with some skill and a good record of employment," Hileman said.
Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis objected to the depiction of Sexton as a family man, however, noting that Sexton lost custody of his children and was arrested for a DUI with them in the car.
Sexton was hospitalized over the years for problems ranging from depression to alcoholism. He attempted suicide in 1993. Sexton's mother died in 1997, his attorney said, and "then his life began to unravel."
The waterproofing business he started with a girlfriend went under in 1999. By that point, Hileman said, Sexton had been exposed for years to harsh chemicals that may have affected his brain.
"It is my opinion (Sexton) suffers from a cognitive impairment related to his exposure to organic solvents and alcohol," testified Dr. Michael Maher, a psychiatrist hired by the defense.
Jurors are expected to weigh all of those factors when deliberations begin today.