ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – A man who said he swung a baseball bat but denied killing any of the six victims in a dispute over an Xbox video game system will spend the rest of his life in prison, a judge decided Tuesday.
A jury on Tuesday recommended the death penalty for two other defendants.
Michael Salas, 20, was sentenced to seven life terms without parole. Death was recommended for ringleader Troy Victorino, 29, and Jerone Hunter, 20. All three were convicted last week of six counts of first-degree murder.
Chief Circut Judge Bill Parsons did not set a date for the sentencing of Victorino and Hunter.
Early on Aug. 6, 2004, four men broke into a house in Deltona, slaying the six victims.
Prosecutors said Victorino was angry with victim Erin Belanger, 22, who had him evicted when she found him living in her grandmother's home in Deltona. She kept some of his belongings, including some clothing and the video game system.
The jury recommended death on four of the six murder counts for both Victorino and Hunter. Life in prison was recommended for the other counts.
"I just wanted to tell the victims' families that I'm truly sorry," Salas said before the sentencing, adding that he made a "mistake I will live with for the rest of my life."
As the recommendations were read, Victorino did not look at the jury. Hunter flinched when the first recommendation for death was read but kept his composure, looking forward. Salas leaned back in his chair and sighed with relief after it was clear the jury had not recommended death for him.
Attorneys for Hunter and Salas had argued that their clients were intimidated by the 6-foot-7-inch, 270-pound Victorino, and wouldn't have entered the house if they had not been threatened and coerced.
Besides Belanger, the victims were Francisco Ayo-Roman, 30; Michelle Nathan, 19; Anthony Vega, 34; Roberto Gonzalez, 28; and Jonathan Gleason, 17.
Nathan's mother, Kay Shukwit, said that she was satisfied with the recommendation of life in prison for Salas and that he was not as "evil and vicious" as the other two men. Still, Shukwit said the recommendations did not bring any closure.
"Closure would be for someone to walk up to my front door with Michelle and say, 'Here's your daughter back,'" she said.
In closing arguments, State Attorney John Tanner had urged jurors to recommend the death penalty for all three men, saying the bloody frenzy turned into "a thrill killing."
But defense attorneys argued that their clients should be sentenced to life in prison because of their mental illnesses. Attorney Michael Nielsen said Victorino has bipolar disorder, and attorney Ed Mills said Hunter has schizophrenia.
Defense attorney Jeff Dees said Salas — who admitted swinging a baseball bat in the attacks — was a minor participant in the crime and has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
A fourth defendant, Robert Cannon, pleaded guilty in October to all the charges. But he later refused to testify and said he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea because he was innocent. The judge hasn't decided whether he will allow the change.