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Ohio jury recommends death for serial killer

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A Cleveland jury on Wednesday recommended that convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell be sentenced to death.

The jurors decided that "the aggravated circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors" on all 11 murder counts against Sowell. If he had been found guilty on just one count he would have been eligible for the death penalty.

Sowell, 51, was convicted by the same jury of killing 11 women, whose decomposing bodies were found around his home in 2009, when police attempted to arrest him for rape and assault.

Handcuffed and wearing an orange jumpsuit, the ex-Marine stood emotionless as the verdicts were read. The courtroom was filled with family members of the victims. Some cried openly. Others showed little or no emotion.

As Sowell left the courtroom, he nodded his head slightly in the direction of the family members. Once he was gone and the jurors dismissed, family members broke out in applause, hugged the prosecutors and cried some more.

Prosecutor Rick Bombik told jurors he never intended to allow Sowell to plead and receive life in prison.

"In the history of this town … there is nothing to compare to this crime." prosecutor Rick Bombik told reporters. "This was a story that had to be told."

After the verdict, jury members spoke to reporters but asked that their names not be used.

When asked if Sowell's testimony on the stand had any effect on their decision Juror 9 said: "It made it worse."

"He should have remained silent," added Juror 12, the jury's foreperson.

The juror also told reporters, "He gave us a lot of eye contact which was unwarranted. I was offended. He winked at me."

Jurors also said they had the "living" pictures of the 11 victims up during their deliberations, rather than the crime scene or morgue photos, because they wanted -- in the words of one of the panel members -- to "respect these beautiful women."

One of Sowell's surviving victims Vanessa Gay, 37 sat with reporters as the jurors were questioned and wept as they thanked her for testifying.

"She was very profound to me. The testimony spoke to all of us," the foreperson told Gay.

"I want to thank each one of you for seeing me as a person and not just as what happened to me," Gay responded.

"You didn't deserve that. I felt your pain. I cried for you," the foreperson added.

All of the jurors agreed that they followed the law and felt resigned to their decision to recommend death. Only one juror spoke of feeling any sympathy for Sowell. "I had tears for Anthony Sowell. He is a person,"

Ohio currently has 152 people on death row since re-establishing the death penalty in 1999. The average time from sentencing to execution is 14 years, 6 months.

Judge Dick Ambrose will sentence Sowell this Friday. He can still set aside the death penalty recommendation and sentence Sowell to life in prison. The jury had requested to be present at the time of sentencing.

The defense called no witnesses in the case, but criticized the state's handling of the crime scene investigation and some of the women who testified against Sowell.

The murder victims were Diane Turner, Telacia Fortson, Janice Webb, Nancy Cobbs, Tonia Carmichael, Tishana Culver, Leshanda Long, Amelda Hunter, Michelle Mason, Crystal Dozier and Kim Smith.

Jurors deliberated for about 15 hours before reaching a verdict.

(Editing by Greg McCune and James B. Kelleher)