For five weeks, two men sat across the aisle from each other in Courtroom 8A of the Lee County Justice Center in Fort Myers. They aren’t enemies. They aren’t friends. They are fathers pulled together by inexplicable, unfathomable teenage mob-mentality murders Oct. 6, 2006, in Cape Coral. Alfredo Sosa, 39, lost son Jeffrey, 14, and brother Alexis, 18, at a birthday party gone mad. Hugh Johnston, 55, held onto son Kemar, 23, when jurors Friday recommended life in prison over death after a superb closing argument by defense attorney David Brener. Circuit Judge Thomas Reese is expected to concur when he pronounces sentence March 1.
The same jury convicted Kemar Johnston of the Sosa slayings Jan. 29. The teens were tortured, beaten, shot and burned. The jury’s decision left Alfredo Sosa infuriated. “I am a true believer in an eye for an eye,” he says. “I believe that if you have the capability to take someone’s life – the way that my son’s and little brother’s lives were taken – you should die.”Hugh Johnston, who wasn’t in court for the advisory vote, says he did not feel like celebrating. “My sympathy goes out to the family of the victims because they lost more than I did,” he says. Both fathers say the three-year, five-month wait for justice took a toll on families.
“It’s been extremely hard,” Alfredo Sosa says. “There’s a lot of times that I feel like I can’t go on. “But I catch myself. I can’t show any of my weaknesses to my family because they look up to me as a person of strength for them to keep on. “I try not to let the emotions take over.” Hugh Johnston says he understands the pain of the Sosas even though he can’t feel their loss. “It’s been very emotional, very rough,” he says. “But what can I do? Other than pray for myself and pray for them. That’s all we can do right now. “We already both lost. There is no gain in this.” Defense attorney David Brener presented a large board to jurors with pictures of co-defendants and other partygoers. He said there is a disparity between co-defendants — many of whom had large roles in the killings but who weren’t charged. Brener argued there were more than a dozen partygoers who committed crimes but who weren’t charged.
“Life without parole is no picnic,” he said.
Brener’s closing argument has continued this afternoon. He told jurors Jeffrey Sosa had carbon monoxide in his lungs, which meant he was alive when the car was set on fire in the North Cape Industrial Park. Witnesses said Paul Nunes and Kenneth Lopez went back to the industrial park to set the car on fire. Johnston was at his house with other co-defendants at that time, he said.
12:08 p.m. update
Court is in recess until 1:15 p.m., when Brener will continue his closing argument.
11:04 a.m. update
Brener cited research that shows death penalty jurors want to accomplish four things — protect society, punish the defendant, follow the law and do justice.He said a life sentence accomplishes all those goals. “The only way he will ever leave is in a pine box,” Brener said. He told jurors they are never compelled to recommend a death sentence.
11:01 a.m. update
Johnston attorney David Brener started his closing argument by telling jurors the Sosas didn’t deserve to die. “On the other hand, we have the life of another young man,” he said. He said the situation got out of control, fueled by drugs and alcohol, Johnston’s low IQ and peer pressure. “You have a once in a lifetime, combustible situation,” he said. “One which Kemar did not start and could not control.”
10:45 a.m. update
Lee has finished his closing argument. “If justice is to mean anything, the defendant must be held accountable,” he said.
The court is in a 10-minute break before the defense gives its closing argument.