JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A Jacksonville woman who pleaded guilty last month to the kidnapping, robbery and murder of an 83-year-old man leaving Jacksonville International Airport in October 2010 was sentenced Friday to three life terms.
Shanda Merritt, 36, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, kidnapping with a firearm, and armed robbery in the killing of Charles Soukup (pictured below).
Merritt was also sentenced to life in prison last month in the attempted murder of Charles Davis, her ex-boyfriend. Davis was shot right after Soukup's murder.
Austin, Merritt, Corey Harrington and Marquavious Avery abducted Soukup from the airport, killing him and stealing his rental car. Soukup's body was found in woods near the airport.
Avery, who is Merritt's son, was also sentenced Friday to six years in prison for second-degree murder, kidnapping and armed robbery. He and Harrington previously pleaded guilty. Harrington had already been sentenced to seven years.
Avery apologized to Soukup's family.
"I want to apologize for the unnecessary death of Mr. Soukup. I just hope I'm forgiven," he said.
Avery was 16 at the time. While he's the biological son of Merritt, he lived with other relatives because she was in and out of jail. He said he was there against his will when Soukup was killed and never hurt Soukup. He said he told police everything they needed to know.
"We gave him what we felt he deserved in light of the testimony he provided to assist the state," Assistant State Attorney John Guy said.
Merritt was the only adult at the time of the killing and was quickly pointed out as the ringleader. She's now very sick with a heart disorder that doctors say will kill her soon.
"But for her cardiologist assuring us that she is not going to be on the Earth this much longer, we would not have waived the death penalty," Guy said. "She was more than qualified under Florida law as someone to receive the death penalty."
Soukup's family traveled from around the country to see their loved one's killer sentenced Friday. They were tearful as they sat in the courtroom, waiting to find out the fate of the Gainesville man's killers.
"Words are not enough to describe the deep pain, the turmoil and kaleidoscope of intense feelings that our family has been put through and will be feeling for the rest of our lives," Soukup's daughter, Patricia Holloway, said during victim impact statements.
Soukup's nephew, Bruno Bellido Jr., said after the sentencing that justice has been served in this case, but his family will forever be affected.
"It's hard, very hard. It put a dent in the family that won't be erased," he said.
After the murder, prosecutors said, Austin and Merritt used the stolen car in the attempted murder of Merritt's ex-boyfriend.
A total of six people were arrested in connection with Soukup's death.
Austin and Merritt were convicted earlier this year for the attempted murder of Davis. Austin was sentenced to 45 years in prison in that case.
Merritt's daughter and sister pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence in Soukup's killing. They're facing about two year sentences.
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