Judge Jacob A. Walker III sentenced Gregory Lance Henderson to death Thursday for the 2009 murder of a Lee County sheriff's deputy, overriding a jury's recommendation in a capital case for the second time in as many years.
Henderson, a Bibb City native, was convicted last year of running over and killing Deputy James W. Anderson during an attempted traffic stop. Jurors, in a 9-3 vote, recommended Henderson be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Alabama judges have the final say in capital cases, and Walker had been urged by law enforcement officials to send Henderson to death row. Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones had testified that Henderson deserved the "severest punishment" for his actions, and Attorney General Luther Strange had attended a hearing this summer in which Henderson was expected to be sentenced.
"Nothing can bring James back, but I believe there is a degree of closure provided to his loved ones and the law enforcement community in light of the court's decision today," Jones said Thursday. "We should never tolerate the deliberate killing of a law officer while performing their sworn duty. The punishment should fit the crime -- this sentence does just that."
Defense attorney Jeremy W. Armstrong of Phenix City cited a number of mitigating circumstances in Henderson's background and said Walker had "ignored what the jurors thought was best for their community."
"We had jurors here who were under enormous pressure by the law enforcement community to impose the death penalty, and they sat through all the testimony and chose that the best form of punishment was life without parole," Armstrong said. "The death penalty, in my opinion, is for the worst of the worst. In this situation, I just think we had some pretty good mitigating things to support life without parole and not override."
The sentence came nearly three years to the day after the fatal traffic stop off Lee Road 240. Anderson had been trying to pull Henderson over for a switched tag violation when he began evading him.
The deputy had stepped out of his vehicle and ordered Henderson to stop when he struck him with his Honda Civic. Witnesses said Henderson floored the accelerator, crushing Anderson, who was unable to breathe as he was pinned between the car and the ground.
"It is the state's position that the only remorse by this defendant was remorse that he was caught and that he failed at his attempt to avoid apprehension on an outstanding warrant for parole violation," Assistant District Attorney Kisha A. Abercrombie argued in court filings.
Henderson maintained he was high on methamphetamine and marijuana, and that Anderson's death was an accident. Armstrong pointed to Henderson's troubled upbringing and his borderline intellectual ability in asking Walker to affirm the jury's recommendation.
In imposing the death sentence, Walker said Henderson sought to influence a witness from jail, and cited recordings of jailhouse telephone calls Henderson made that, according to prosecutors, pointed to a lack of remorse. Walker is expected to write a more detailed sentencing order explaining the reasons for the override.
Armstrong said he was disappointed in the outcome, but not surprised. Walker overrode a unanimous life without parole recommendation in March 2011 when he sentenced Courtney Lockhart to death for the murder of Auburn University student Lauren Burk.