WINFIELD, Kan. – A jury on Tuesday recommended the death penalty for an Arkansas City man convicted of killing a 19-year-old college student two years ago.
Jurors had deliberated for about four hours over two days before returning their decision in the case of Justin Thurber, 25. The same jury had convicted Thurber last week of capital murder in the January 2007 death of Jodi Sanderholm.
Judge Jim Pringle set Thurber's sentencing for March 9. Pringle does not have to follow the jury's recommendation, but the only other possible sentence would be life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The families of both Sanderholm and Thurber cried as Tuesday's verdict was read.
Sanderholm's family gathered in a circle and prayed with the Rev. Mark Boxman of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Arkansas City after the judge dismissed the jury.
"Either verdict would have been fine for us," her mother, Cindi Sanderholm, said outside the courtroom. "We do believe he got the correct choice."
Sanderholm's family expressed sympathy for Thurber's family, but noted his family will at least be able to talk with and write to their son while he is in prison awaiting the death penalty.
"They know their son is going to die," Cindi Sanderholm said. "We weren't given that option."
The Cowley College student was abducted, raped and strangled, her body found several days after her disappearance in a wildlife area near Arkansas City.
"The jury's verdict brings justice to the community, but it is still a sad day because it does not bring Jodi back," Kansas Attorney General Steve Six said in a written statement. "Jodi had a promising future and a whole life ahead of her that will not be realized. My family will continue to pray for the Sanderholm family and I ask all Kansans to do the same."
Prosecutors said Thurber deserved the death penalty because the killing was carried out in a "heinous and cruel manner."
They told jurors Thurber abducted Sanderholm and drove her around the community for more than four hours before finally walking her into the woods, where he raped, sodomized and strangled her.
His defense attorneys argued the best mitigating circumstance was mercy for Thurber and his family.
Thurber did not testify during his trial. However, he muttered "I'm sorry" to Sanderholm's family while leaving the courtroom after the jury started deliberating his punishment Monday.
Earlier in the day, Thurber's parents and sister had asked the jury to spare his life.
Glenda Thurber tearfully testified that prosecutors had rejected her son's request to let him plead guilty in exchange for life in prison. She apologized to Sanderholm's family, saying, "What happened to Jodi was beyond awful — horrific."
His defense attorney, Ron Evans, had argued that Thurber was bipolar and had a low intelligence. Had Thurber's IQ been 10 points lower, the defense noted, he would be considered mentally disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.
"I've been trying for two years, and I'd like to be able to give you this neat package to explain what's wrong in his brain that caused this mayhem," Evans said. "This is the best I can do."
Don Anderson, a member of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said in a statement that Sanderholm's murder is an unspeakable tragedy, but that life without parole is a sufficiently severe punishment for Thurber that also protects the public.