The Lee County jury that convicted Walter Steven Norris of killing Winter Haven police Officer Johnnie Patterson recommended Wednesday that Norris' life be spared.
Norris glanced at the ceiling and said "Thank you" when the jury's 8-4 vote in favor of a life sentence was announced.
Across the courtroom, Patterson's mother, Gloria, appeared distressed that the jury rejected the death penalty.
"You don't want to hear what I have to say," Mrs. Patterson said later, struggling to talk through tears before her husband led her away. "Where was Johnnie's judge and jury when he was executed?"
"This was not what we expected," Johnnie N. Patterson Sr. said, "but the jury did an outstanding job and we accept it. It is over now and we can get on with our lives."
Polk County Circuit Judge J. Michael Hunter, a former police officer, can overrule the jury recommendation and impose a death sentence. But such decisions are rare and have been challenged in appellate courts.
Hunter scheduled a hearing for Sept. 7 in Bartow.
Two jurors who voted for the death penalty, Peter Burgess and Kerry Graves, said the jury majority was swayed by defense attorneys' arguments that Norris had a poor childhood, had suffered brain damage as a child and became addicted to drugs as an adult.
Winter Haven police Deputy Chief Darrell Kirkland, who was in Fort Myers for the sentencing recommendation, told reporters, "We have to accept the jury's verdict, but I think it is going to be hard for our police officers to accept it."
Last week, the jurors agreed that the killing was premeditated and reached a unanimous verdict of first-degree murder.
Norris, 36, of Wahneta, did not testify during the 13-day trial but admitted to investigators that he killed Patterson to avoid arrest after a traffic stop on March 8, 1997.
He said he shot Patterson in self-defense. Patterson's weapon was found unused, snapped in its holster. He died instantly.