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Prosecutors, defense clash over whether man who killed 5 in Florida bank deserves death penalty

Bank Shooting Florida Trial
Posted at 3:20 PM, Jun 26, 2024

SEBRING, Fla. (AP) — A former prison guard trainee who executed five women inside a Florida bank in 2019 deserves the death penalty because the massacre was “shockingly evil,” long-planned and designed to mentally torture his victims, a prosecutor argued at the killer's penalty trial on Wednesday.

Assistant State Attorney Bonde Johnson told jurors during closing arguments that Zephen Xaver, 27, carried out the mass shooting at Sebring's SunTrust bank to satisfy his yearslong desire to experience killing, forcing the women to lie down before executing them.

“He didn't murder one person to truly know what it would be like to kill. He killed five. He watched them laying there on the floor. They were under his control, for his enjoyment, as he shot each one,” Johnson said.

But defense attorney Jane McNeill asked the 12 jurors to spare Xaver, saying that he is mentally ill, hearing voices since childhood urging him to kill himself and others. He sought help, she said, but never truly got it.

“We ask you to show Zephen what he may least deserve — compassion, grace and mercy,” McNeill said, her voice breaking. “Compassion is not a limited resource. Grace is not limited. Mercy is not limited. Sentencing Zephen to life is the right thing to do.”

The jury will be sequestered while they consider whether Xaver should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Xaver pleaded guilty last year to five counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 23, 2019, massacre in the town of Sebring, about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southeast of Tampa. The trial at Sebring's courthouse was delayed for years by the COVID-19 pandemic, legal arguments and attorney illness.

Under a 2023 Florida law, the jury will only have to vote 8-4 in favor of the death penalty for Circuit Judge Angela Cowden to impose that sentence. State law had required a unanimous jury recommendation for a judge to impose death, but Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature changed it after a 9-3 jury vote spared the shooter who murdered 17 people at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

Xaver's victims included customer Cynthia Watson, 65, who had been married less than a month; bank teller coordinator Marisol Lopez, 55, who was a mother of two; banker trainee Ana Pinon-Williams, a 38-year-old mother of seven; bank teller Debra Cook, a 54-year-old mother of two and a grandmother; and banker Jessica Montague, 31, a mother of one and stepmother of four.

He ordered them to lie on the floor and then shot them as they cried out, “Why?”

During the two-week trial, prosecutors portrayed Xaver as a cold and calculated killer, who pretends to hear voices as a cover for his violent impulses. His attorneys countered he has long suffered psychotic episodes. A defense physician told jurors he has a small, benign brain tumor that could explain his behavior — a prosecution doctor testified he doesn't.

In 2014, Xaver's high school principal in Indiana contacted police after he told a counselor that he dreamed of killing classmates, among other alarming behavior. His mother, Misty Hendricks, promised to get him psychological help. She testified at trial that she stopped his medications at 17 because he seemed to be doing better.

He joined the Army, but was discharged during boot camp in 2016 because of homicidal thoughts. Those thoughts continued, the jury heard.

“It’s all I can think of, it’s all I hear every day and it’s all I see every day. It’s all I smell and taste every day: blood, death and murder. It’s all I have happening 24/7,” Xaver wrote a friend. He made similar posts online.

He moved to Sebring in 2018. The local prison soon hired him, but he quit after two months. That was the day after he bought his gun and two weeks before the massacre.

The morning of the killings, he had a long text-message conversation with a girlfriend, telling her it would be the “best day of his life” but refused to say why.

He finally told her just minutes before he entered the bank: he was about to die. He then added “the fun part.”

“I’m taking a few people with me because I’ve always wanted to kill," he texted.

Prosecutors played the 911 call Xaver placed from inside the bank just moments after the shootings as he calmly told the dispatcher about the murders.

“I didn’t think I could do it but.....” he said as his voice trailed off. When dispatcher Kristen Johnson asked why he killed the women, he didn’t answer at first but then said, “I thought that I could. I wanted to do it.”

He then said he was about to kill himself.

“I have wanted to die since I was 9,” he told Johnson, whose voice became more anxious throughout the 45-minute call. She begged him to put down his gun, that help was arriving. He refused.

“There is no helping me,” he said. He told her voices had been telling him to kill since he was 11.

Xaver surrendered after speaking by phone with a Highlands County sheriff's crisis negotiator. He told a detective, “I deserve to die for this.”

Defense witnesses testified that Xaver was a quiet and kind child, but struggled in school. He took a dark turn in adolescence, they said.

Dr. Tod Stillson, his pediatrician, said a head injury Xaver suffered playing football changed his behavior for the worse. Xaver had homicidal and suicidal thoughts, he said, so he prescribed medications for anxiety, depression and sleep issues. Xaver also saw a psychologist.

Melissa Manges, his high school counselor, testified Xaver wanted more extensive help for his disturbing thoughts, telling her that they scared him, but no long-term residential programs accepted him.

“The system failed Zephen,” she said.