Prosecutor Urges Jury To Advise Death Penalty In 6 Slayings

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - State Attorney John Tanner urged jurors Tuesday to recommend the death penalty for three men convicted of murdering six people, saying the bloody frenzy turned into "a thrill killing."

However, defense attorneys said in closing arguments that their clients should be sentenced to life in prison because of their mental illnesses. Troy Victorino, Jerone Hunter and Michael Salas were convicted last week of six counts of first-degree murder in revenge killings over an Xbox video game system and clothing.

The jurors must now decide whether to vote to recommend for the death penalty or life in prison without parole. It takes a majority decision by the 12 jurors to impose a death sentence. Chief Circuit Judge Bill Parsons then decides the sentence, taking into account the jury's recommendation.

Tanner used charts to explain the aggravating circumstances and said the three men deserved to die by lethal injection.

"Four violent young men came together on a path with baseball bats in their hands and murder and violence in their hearts," Tanner said.

Officials said victim Erin Belanger had Victorino, 29, evicted from her grandmother's vacant house in Deltona. He became angry when she kept his video game system and some clothing, so he organized the killings at another Deltona home, prosecutors said.

A fourth defendant, Robert Cannon, pleaded guilty in October to all the charges. But when he took the stand early in the trial, he refused to testify and said he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea because he was innocent. Parsons hasn't decided whether he will allow the change.

On Tuesday, Tanner said the state has proven aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. Those include committing a burglary; committing a capital felony by killing two or more people; attempting to avoid arrest by killing all the witnesses; the killings were cold and calculated and they were heinous, atrocious and cruel.

Defense attorney Michael Nielsen said Victorino suffers from severe mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, and had been unfairly characterized.

"He's not mean. He's not Charlie Manson. He's a nice guy. He's been convicted of some horrible crimes," Nielsen said.

One expert said Victorino was abused as a child, and that he slept with bats and chains because he was so scared.

Ed Mills, Hunter's attorney, said because his client suffers from schizophrenia and still talks to his twin brother who died when he was 6-months-old, he should not receive the death penalty.

"Life without the possibility of parole is a legal sentence and a logical sentence," Mills said.

Jeff Dees, Salas's attorney, said his client, who admitted swinging a baseball bat in the attacks, said his client was a minor participant. He also said Salas had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"I believe there is no testimony that Michael killed anybody," Dees said. "Any evidence of what Michael did was circumstantial."

Earlier Tuesday, a medical expert for the prosecution testified that brain scans of Victorino and Hunter were normal and could not be used to support the diagnosis of mental illness. Dr. Lawrence Holder of Shands Jacksonville hospital also said the use of PET scans to diagnose mental illnesses is not an established clinical practice.

Killed in the August 2004 slayings were Belanger; Michelle Nathan, 19; Francisco Ayo-Roman, 30; Anthony Vega, 34; Roberto Gonzalez, 28, and Jonathan Gleason, 17. Most of the victims worked at Burger King in Deltona.

The local station will bring you the jury's sentencing recommendation in this case when it's announced.

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