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Jury calls for death sentence in Fla. killings

Associated Press / October 30, 2010

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PENSACOLA, Fla. — A former karate instructor should be put to death for leading a group of men dressed like ninjas to rob and kill a wealthy Florida couple while their nine special-needs children slept or cowered nearby, a jury recommended yesterday.

The jurors voted 10 to 2 to recommend that Patrick Gonzalez Jr. be executed for the slayings of Byrd and Melanie Billings.

Their nine adopted children, who are between the ages of 5 and 12, all have special needs, including fetal alcohol syndrome and autism.

Some of the couple’s relatives appeared happy, though others showed no emotion when the recommendation was announced. Gonzalez had no reaction.

“The justice system has worked,’’ said Ashley Markham, the couple’s adult daughter, in a statement she read to the media. Markham is now raising the couple’s other children.

Under Florida law, the final sentence will be imposed by Judge Nickolas Geeker, who must give the recommendation “great weight.’’

Geeker will hear from attorneys again at a Dec. 9 hearing, though it could take up to three months for him to issue a final decision.

John Jan Gontarek, Gonzalez’s defense attorney, said he was disappointed but hoped Geeker would not follow the jury’s recommendation.

The jury of 11 women and one man convicted Gonzalez of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of home-invasion robbery late Thursday, after half a day of deliberations. They began considering their sentencing recommendation yesterday.

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