NEW PORT RICHEY — The 12 men and women on Adam Matos' jury were chosen from a pool of nearly 300 people in part for their responses to a single question: Could you condemn a stranger to death for a crime?
On Tuesday, the panel said "no" four times, recommending that Adam Matos instead serve life in prison without the possibility of parole for the brutal 2014 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, her parents and her new boyfriend.
It was far from a resounding "no." Ten jurors wanted Matos to be executed for the deaths of ex-girlfriend Megan Brown, her father, Gregory Brown, and her boyfriend Nick Leonard. And 11 jurors wanted Matos executed for the beating of Megan Brown's mother, Margaret Brown, who was bludgeoned at least 9 times in the head with a hammer.
But a unanimous vote is required for a death sentence under Florida law.
When the jurors left, the rage and anguish of the victims' families filled the room, as the judge heard them tell of gaping holes in their hearts.
"In my nightmares, I see him trembling and shaking to find and load his rifles, his hands shaking so much he's hardly able to get a shell into his gun to defend his family," said Gregory Brown's younger brother, Richard Brown. "To this day I can feel his helplessness and shock as the murders were unfolding in front of him."
He talked about the Brown family: Gregory, with his soft heart. Margaret, who had worked hard on the farm and was ready to spend time with her grandson. He wondered if Megan had been holding the 4-year-old son she shared with Matos when the bullets started flying.
He pounded on the lectern as he described the beatings — "He used hammers to make hamburger out of human faces."
Gregory Brown's sister spoke of sprinkling Holy Water on the large pool of blood in the garage. Leonard's mother, Paula Rystrom, wept as she spoke of missing her son's soft kisses on her forehead. She now holds his ashes in her hands every day, just like she cradled him as a baby, she said.
She turned to face Matos, snarling as she poked holes in his account of what transpired on Aug. 28, 2014. Her son couldn't have attempted to strangle his attacker's neck as Matos had claimed. Leonard had broken his hand a few days earlier while working as a carpenter.
"I live the daily nightmare of my son's skull being bludgeoned to death, I feel every one of those 21 blows over and over, like a broken record," Rystrom said.
As Megan Brown's cousin spoke of a little boy's life without his mother, Rystrom began to shake and sob in the gallery.
The boy can remember everything he saw the night his family was killed, Amber Pyle said.
Adopted by Pyle's mother, he will often talk about when "daddy made a boo boo on my mommy's head and there was a lot of blood," she said.
"He tells us how scared he is of his daddy and that he's a bad man," Pyle said. "He's terrified of you, Adam."
When they were done, it was Matos' turn.
"I would just like to say I'm sorry to the family of the victims," he said.
From the back of the courtroom came cries of "no, no you aren't" and "shut up."
"I know that's not enough," he said, "but I would just like to make peace and I hope that they don't hold on to that hate in their heart because a heart filled with hate is not free."
Someone in the gallery yelled out a profane response, curtly ending the remarks.
It had taken less than three hours on Thursday for the jury to unanimously convict Matos of four counts of first-degree murder. He admitted at trial that he killed the four, all while knowing that his son was in the house.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Mary Handsel said she didn't buy his claim that he killed out of fear he would lose his son.
"This was the most selfish, self centered, evil thing that I've ever heard," she told him.
The jury had made its decision, she said.
"But if there was ever a case that I've ever heard that 12 people would have decided that death was appropriate, this was probably it," she said.
She reminded Matos that he was one vote away from the death penalty.
One person, she said, had felt enough sympathy to spare his life. His attorney, she said, had made sure of that.
After calling 13 Matos friends and family members to testify Monday at the sentencing hearing, Matos' attorney William Pura had pointed to him Tuesday sitting stoically in an orange and white striped prison uniform.
The jury was about to deliberate on the death sentence.
Pura asked for mercy, invoking the words of William Shakespeare and Jesus Christ. He also asked the jurors to "choose life."
"Ladies and gentlemen, these are the clothes Adam Matos will wear for the rest of his life," Pura said. "He will be told what to eat and when to eat. He will be watched when he goes to the restroom or takes a shower. The only time he won't be watched is when he dies, and its up to you to determine if the moment of his death will be from a call from a higher being or from a call from our government."
Matos now has 30 days to appeal Handsel's decision.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @adawsonwrites