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Helper in killings is guilty of first-degree murder

Bobby Garner, who helped kill two people because he didn't want to be called chicken, earned a new label Thursday: convicted murderer.

The stocky 19-year-old clenched his fists as the clerk pronounced the guilty verdict. Sitting behind Garner, his sister Amanda wiped away a tear with her sleeve.

There were no tears for the dead, Madeline Weisser, 75, and her son John Bowers, 55. Their nearest relatives, in Clearwater, did not attend Garner's trial.

Weisser and Bowers died in their Hudson home Jan. 26, 1992, about a week after Garner and several friends started talking about breaking into the Sanderling Lane home, robbing it, and killing whomever they met.

Alvin Morton, the leader, shot Bowers in the head as he tried to protect his mother. Weisser was stabbed in the neck eight times, her head nearly decapitated. Morton told the police that Garner jumped on the knife to force it through her spinal column.

When he talked to the investigator, Garner denied hurting anyone deliberately. "That was the last thing I wanted to happen in that house," Garner said. "Murder."

But several former friends testified that Garner, visiting a friend's house before the blood was dry, seemed thrilled to brag about his role in the murders. With Garner were Morton and the other two teens eventually charged in the killings, Tim Kane and Chris Walker.

Wayne Whitcomb said that Garner was laughing as he described the noises the knife made as he ran it up and down Weisser's backbone.

"Was that good enough for these boys?" Assistant State Attorney Robert Attridge said in the state's closing argument.

"No. No, they took a souvenir, a trophy." Attridge held up his right hand, pinkie extended. "A finger."

Even giving Garner the benefit of every doubt, there are still enough admissions in his taped statement to convict him of first-degree murder, Attridge said.

"Put that knife in Bobby Garner's hand and put him over Mrs. Weisser," said Attridge. "What is going through his mind other than to kill?"

The only killer in that house was Alvin Morton, said Sam Williams, Garner's lawyer.

Williams underscored the differences between the teen witnesses' statements. The only facts they agree on is that Morton talked about killing all the time before the murders, Williams said, and then bragged about it afterward.

"The only thing the state has proven," Williams said, "was that Alvin Morton deserved to be convicted of first-degree murder."

Williams asked the jurors to think of a spectrum of guilt, with the ringleader, Morton, at the high end. On the low end was Walker, who picked the victims and helped plan the killings but ran away.

"Somewhere in between, I submit," said Williams, "is Bobby Garner."

Williams recommended third-degree murder _ killing during an armed trespass _ or manslaughter. Only half an hour before the end, Garner's family had hope that the jury had taken Williams' suggestion.

The jury had sent a note to the judge. "Thank you Lord, they have a question," said Garner's mother, Natalie Ciago, walking into the courtroom to hear what it was. "That means it's not cut and dried."

The jurors asked if they could decide on manslaughter even though the case for first-degree murder had been proven as well.

The direct answer, which the court could not provide, was: Yes, but you're not supposed to. Attridge had detailed the situation for the jury in his argument. If you find that the facts support convictions on more than one charge, he explained, the law directs you to pick the most serious.

But the bottom line was that if the jury checked the manslaughter box on the verdict form anyway, the state in all its power could do nothing to change it. And the question hinted that some jurors, at least, were talking about manslaughter.

Judge Craig Villanti read the standard juror instruction dealing with "lesser included offenses," which indirectly points the jurors to find the highest possible charge.

Half an hour later, they did.

Garner faces the electric chair or life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years. The jury will recommend a sentence later this month.

As Ciago walked quickly from the courtroom, Barbara Stanley, Alvin Morton's mother, emerged from a row of benches. Last month, she watched a jury convict her only son of murder and recommend that he die in the electric chair.

Stanley opened her arms, and Ciago's slim frame disappeared in the hug.