By PHILLIP BANTZ
Joshua Henninger took a deep breath, wiped the tears from his face and stood to face the judge.
After less than three and a half hours of delibration Friday, the four-man eight-woman jury had reached a decision: Henninger, 19, was guilty of kidnapping, sexual battery with great force, arson and first-degree murder in the July 2005 bludgeoning death of Annamarie Randazzo.
Three of the jurors wept, one shaking uncontrollably, as they were polled by Lee County Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese.
“It’s been a difficult week for many of you, I know,” Reese said moments before the verdict. “I don’t envy you sitting there and listening to the evidence and testimony in this case. It had to be extremely difficult.”
Randazzo’s family members rushed out of the courtroom and past reporters lining the hallway outside. Henninger’s family waited as the crowd emptied, then quietly exited through a side door without speaking.
“We’re just happy with the outcome,” said Jeff Walter, Randazzo’s stepfather and the only family member who commented. “We feel that justice, as much as could be done, was served.”
Henninger will be formally sentenced Oct. 24 after a pre-sentencing investigation, Reese said. The only sentence in the state of Florida for a first-degree murder conviction is life in prison without parole.
Henninger and Jeremy Chapman, now 25, kidnapped, raped and killed Randazzo, a 17-year-old Mariner High School honor student, then burned her remains.
Defense attorneys had tried this week to convince jurors that Henninger participated in the murder because he feared not only for his life but the lives of his mother and two teenage sisters, who were sleeping when Randazzo was beaten with a pellet pistol and duct-taped in Henninger’s bedroom July 21, 2005.
Chapman was a “horror waiting to happen,” said Henninger’s lead attorney, Public Deputy Defender Ken Garber. He said Henninger was too scared of Chapman to stand up for himself or Randazzo.
“This isn’t the movie of the week where the hero rises to the occasion. This is a boy who was expected to be a man. He used bad judgment and perhaps he was cowardly in what he did _ he just wasn’t strong enough to stop it,”
Garber said during his closing argument.
And it was Chapman, not Henninger, who intended to kill Randazzo and had plotted her death before she arrived at Henninger’s home to buy drugs, Garber said.
“The bottom line is that Joshua (Henninger) did not have the intent to hurt that girl, to kill her,” he said. “Chapman was the architect and the perpetrator. He had his own agenda and this boy was just pulled into it.”
Chapman, who pleaded guilty in June to murdering Randazzo and his roommate in a separate attack, is serving two consecutive life sentences without parole. As part of the plea negotiation, prosecutors could have called Chapman to testify against Randazzo.
But with Henninger’s taped confessions, which the defense had repeatedly attempted to suppress before and during the trial, Chapman’s testimony was unnecessary.
Henninger, who has a seventh-grade education, testified Thursday, telling jurors that he’d repeatedly lied to investigators, then asked for their trust before launching into another, more peripheral, version of his role in Randazzo’s death.
The damage, though, was already done.
Henninger had explained, on tape, his and Chapman’s plan to lure Randazzo with drugs, then kill her and take her car to South Carolina. He’d described Randazzo’s moans as he and Chapman raped her over a bathtub inside a home under construction in northeast Cape Coral. He re-enacted the death blows.
He even described the size and weight of the log he watched Chapman smash over Randazzo’s head.
“This is not something somebody would admit to if it wasn’t true,” Russell said during his closing argument. “He’s giving you detail. He tried to tell you he walked away. He knows it. He sees it. He’s there.”
Henninger had ample opportunity to avert the crime, and it was Randazzo who was helpless, said Russell.
“The defendant takes the stand yesterday and tries to withdraw his criminal activity. Duress? They’d planned this days before,” said Russell.
Jurors saw photographs of Randazzo’s shattered skull before and after a medical examiner had glued the fragments back together.
Henninger told detectives he and Chapman had eaten at a McDonald’s restaurant with Randazzo¹s corpse still in the trunk on the way to dump her body.
The forensic images and Henninger’s narrative or Randazzo’s last moments alive kept the Randazzo family in hysterics throughout the week. They fled the courtroom many times, but they always returned, sometimes after a few minutes, sometimes after a few hours.
The Randazzos, though, will likely find only a fraction of solace in knowing that Chapman and Henninger will be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, said Russell.
“What justice can you get in a murder case?”