Bobby Garner, a former altar boy turned killer, was spared Tuesday night by a jury that looked into his youthful face and decided the teen should not die for his part in two killings.
Garner, 19, rocked forward on his feet as he heard the jury's recommendation. Sitting 10 feet behind him, his mother, Natalie Ciago, made the sign of the cross.
"Thank you," she whispered to jurors as they filed out of the courtroom. "Thank you."
Circuit Judge Craig Villanti will take the jury's recommendation into consideration when he sentences Garner on April 6.
Garner was 17 when he joined his friend Alvin Morton in finding out what it was like to kill. On Jan. 26, 1992, Morton, Garner and another friend, Tim Kane, invaded a Hudson home. Two others fled at the last moment.
When the three teens left, Madeline Weisser, 75, was dead on the living room floor, her head nearly severed. Beside her, her son, John Bowers, 55, was dead from a shotgun blast.
The boys also took a souvenir: Bowers' right pinkie finger. Later that night, the grotesque trophy would be the centerpiece in an orgy of bragging that led the police to the suspects within hours.
The jury agreed Thursday that Garner was guilty of both murders. To reach their conclusion, the jurors did not have to decide that Garner actually killed the pair. They could have decided that Garner just participated in a scheme to rob the house, and did not know the couple were marked for death.
Jurors couldn't be interviewed about their sentencing recommendation before press time Tuesday evening.
Garner's defense against the death penalty included a doctor's report that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood beatings.
Garner's lawyer, Robert Hoskins, also reminded the jury of Garner's age. There would be plenty of years in prison _ at least 25 _ for Garner to turn his life around, Hoskins argued.
"Ladies and gentlemen, be stronger than Bobby Garner was," said Hoskins. "Don't abandon him. Prison may just give him the structure he needs to be a good and productive human being."
The state pointed out that to participate in the killings, Garner had to ride 10 miles by bicycle to join Morton in Hudson that night.
It's laughable to say that Morton's domination of Garner led Garner into the murders, said Assistant State Attorney Robert Attridge. "If he didn't want to be sitting where he is today, all he had to do was stay home."
The jury took 30 minutes to decide.
It was a bittersweet victory for Garner's family. "It hurts," said Garner's sister, Vicky Jones. "It still hurts."
"Where there is life, there is hope," said Ciago, his mother. "Where there is no life, there is nothing."