PENSACOLA, Fla. – A judge sentenced a former karate instructor to death on Thursday for leading a group of men dressed like ninjas to kill a wealthy Florida couple while their special-needs children slept or cowered nearby.
A jury had reccommended in October that Patrick Gonzalez Jr. be executed, but a judge must impose death sentences under Florida law.
"I didn't do it," Patrick Gonzalez Jr. said after Judge Nickolas Geeker read the findings that led him to affirm the jury's reccomendation.
Geeker said he supported a sentence of death for Gonzalez because he "was clearly the ringleader and the person who directed the other defendants" to the 2009 killings of Byrd and Melanie Billings.
The judge said evidence in the double-murder and home invasion trial showed that the couple died in terror and likely feared the men would also execute the young children in the home.
"They would have assumed their minor children would not have been left behind as witnesses," Geeker said.
The Billingses had nine adopted children between the ages of 5 and 12, all with special needs including fetal alcohol syndrome and autism.
Billings family members sobbed as Geeker recounted details of the crime during the sentencing.
The couple's adult daughter who is raising the nine younger children later praised the death sentence.
"We witnessed the legal system working the way it was intended to," Ashley Markham said.
Prosecutors said Gonzalez was motivated by his believe that the Billings had millions in cash in a safe at the west Escambia County home.
The men took an unopened safe from the home that contained nothing of value, but a second safe that wasn't stolen had $164,000 in cash, court records show.
Gonzalez is the only defendant to face the death penalty in the case. Two others testified against Gonzalez. Trials of the participants are ongoing.