A Lee County jury needed less than half an hour Wednesday to recommend life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for Gregory Lance Henderson, the Columbus man convicted of running over and killing a deputy sheriff.
Deputy James W. Anderson’s family, who one day earlier embraced the jury’s guilty verdict at the end of a grueling trial, appeared crestfallen after the brief penalty phase.
“What we would hope for we’ll never get,” Anderson’s widow, Corinna Anderson, said outside the courtroom. “We would hope for our husband, our dad back. A son, a brother, that’s what we would hope for. That will never happen.”
Nine jurors voted for life without parole, while three thought Henderson deserved the lethal injection, a tally that fell far short of the 10 votes needed for a death recommendation. But the decision ultimately falls to Circuit Court Judge Jacob A. Walker III, a jurist who recently overrode a rare 12-0 jury recommendation for life without parole in the high-profile case of Courtney Lockhart.
Henderson’s sentencing is set for Jan. 31.
“We have to let the judicial system just do their job,” Corinna Anderson said, fighting back tears. “We just hope for the best.”
The jury’s recommendation followed a half day of dramatic testimony that opened a window into Henderson’s troubled upbringing and his criminal history, elements jurors did not consider during the initial phase of the trial. Jurors also heard for the first time from Henderson, who offered an emotional apology to the Anderson family but fell stubbornly silent during cross-examination.
“There’s nothing I will say that will make it OK,” Henderson, 33, of Columbus, said softly from behind the defense table. “I want to tell the family that I’m very sorry, and I ask that you one day will learn to forgive me.”
Asked about the apology, Corinna Anderson said, “It’s very hard to forgive someone that’s taken someone so special from us, but I hope one day in our hearts we can.”
Defense attorney Jeremy W. Armstrong of Phenix City made an impassioned plea to jurors to spare his client, criticizing the death penalty in general as “state-sanctioned murder.” He described his own experience inside the death chamber and asked the panel to envision a lethal cocktail of drugs being injected into Henderson’s arm.
“Regardless of what happens, Lance will spend the rest of his life in prison,” Armstrong said. “The state should not kill people to demonstrate that killing people is wrong. Two wrongs have never led to a right.”
Prosecutors outlined a methodical justification for a death sentence — including five aggravating circumstances, four of which jurors found applicable — but they mounted a less vigorous argument for lethal injection than they had for a capital murder conviction.
“We are a society of laws,” District Attorney Robbie Treese said, asking jurors to use their best judgment and recall the “murder in (Henderson’s) heart.”
Henderson’s mother, Sheryl Lynn Henderson, tearfully testified that her son was sexually abused as a boy. She described his difficulty retaining a job once he dropped out of high school, and said he was greatly impacted by his uncle’s suicide.
“He was always in trouble as far as home life,” the mother said, adding Lance Henderson was diagnosed early on with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Prosecutors painted a less sympathetic picture of an ex-convict who was wanted for a parole violation when he ran over Deputy James Anderson during a September 2009 traffic stop in Smiths Station.
“We had been actively seeking him, trying to put him in custody,” Jim Phillips, a parole officer in Muscogee County, said. Just three days before Anderson’s death, parole officers narrowly missed arresting Henderson near a Burger King in Columbus. Joseph Obermeyer, another parole officer, said Henderson recognized the officers, “floored” his car and got away.
Obermeyer’s account resembled testimony jurors heard last week about the fatal traffic stop off Lee Road 240 and Henderson’s proclivity to elude authorities.
Anderson and a colleague had sought to pull Henderson over for a switched tag violation when he began evading them. Anderson stepped out of his vehicle and ordered the fugitive to stop before Henderson struck him with his Honda Civic. Witnesses said Henderson floored the accelerator, crushing Anderson.
The deputy, unable to breathe as he was pinned between the car and the ground, died of traumatic asphyxia.
Henderson, who did not testify during the initial phase of trial, claimed the deputy’s death was a tragic accident, and that he was high on marijuana and methamphetamine at the time. Toxicology tests showed Henderson was under the influence of drugs, but prosecutors said he was coherent enough to know right from wrong.
The trial, which began Sept. 26, took a heavy toll on the local law enforcement community. Several lawmen attended the proceedings, showing their support for the Anderson family and colleagues called to testify about their efforts to save Anderson’s life.
“Any time we lose a law enforcement officer, quite frankly I’m a little biased about that,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said. “I hesitate to say that I would wish death on anyone, but having said that I do believe in the death penalty, and under circumstances I feel like it’s an appropriate punishment.
“The fact of the matter,” the sheriff added, “is that there’s no excuse for the intentional killing of a law enforcement officer regardless of the circumstances — period.”