Marco E. Torres Jr. sat silently, stared straight ahead and showed no sign of emotion as a three-judge panel announced he would pay for two murders with his own life.
"As to count one, murder in the first-degree, the sentence of death will be imposed," Hall County District Judge James Livingston read from the decision he reached with Lancaster County District Judge Jodi L. Nelson and Douglas County District Judge Gary B. Randall.
Torres, 34, of Pasadena, Texas, was convicted on Aug. 28, 2009, of killing Timothy Donohue, 48, and Edward Hall, 60, in March 2007.
Livingston went on to sentence Torres to death on the second charge of first-degree murder, to 50 years each for robbery and three counts of using a gun to commit a felony, and to 20 months to five years in prison for unauthorized use of a debit card. Due to state statute, some of the sentences for the lesser felonies were ordered to be served after the sentences for the murder charges.
"I really don't know how to react," Hall County Attorney Mark Young said after the hearing. "We often talk about life-and-death decisions, and this one really was."
Prior to being sentenced, Torres was given the chance to speak to the court, but he declined, with a simple "No, your honor."
Livingston then outlined the case, going over the dates of the trial, the jury's decision, Torres' waiver of his right to have the jury determine the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and the appointment of the three-judge panel. He also noted that the sentencing determination hearing was on Nov. 13, 2009, and at that hearing the attorneys presented evidence and arguments.
At that hearing, Young said the aggravating circumstance were clear: Torres committed the murders to conceal a robbery; he committed two murders at the same time; Hall was bound and gagged and likely suffered prior to his death, making it heinous and cruel; and Torres has a criminal record.
Torres' court-appointed attorney, Kirk Naylor, argued that his client was under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of the murders.
Naylor also questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty. At the time of the murders, the state's manner of execution was electrocution. Since then, electrocution has been found unconstitutional, so Naylor has argued that his client should receive life in prison instead.
Lethal injection was approved by the governor as the state's means of execution in May 2009.
The three-judge panel overruled Naylor's objections as related to the death penalty.
Livingston then went over each of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances before giving the panel's decision on each. The panel determined that the evidence showed Torres was previously convicted of kidnapping and robbery; Hall was bound and gagged before he was shot, which made him helpless and caused him to suffer mentally; the men were killed to conceal Torres' identity following the robbery; and both men were killed at approximately the same time.
As for the mitigating circumstances, the judges found Torres wasn't under mental or emotional distress at the time of the murders, he wasn't an accomplice, and he wasn't unable to appreciate the wrongness of his actions. His attorneys presented evidence of meth use and the effects it can have on the user's mental state, but Torres told an officer conducting the presentence investigation that he wasn't using meth in March 2007.
After the sentencing, Young said he was happy for the victims' families because he knew several of them were hoping for the death penalty.
Many of those family members sat in the courtroom Friday afternoon, along with friends, law enforcement personnel, courthouse employees, defense attorneys and prosecutors. A quiet murmur went through the crowd when the sentence was announced.
Donohue's niece, Jennifer Henningsen, said she was relieved by the decision but was sad as well because the crimes should never have occurred.
"It was hard to breathe, listening to what they were saying," she said.
Henningsen believes Torres deserves the death penalty because he has shown no remorse or pity.
"Why should he get to see his family? We don't get to see Tim," she said.
She recalls her uncle as a happy man who was very giving. She met Hall a few times and said he was soft-spoken and kindhearted.
"They did a lot for each other," Henningsen said.
The sentence does give the families closure, even though appeals and requests for post-conviction relief could last for years, she said.
"Ironically, my dad helped build the prison he will spend the rest of his life in. The walls are very secure," Henningsen said, smiling at her family.
Young said this case is the first one he has handled that resulted in the death penalty. The last death-penalty case in Hall County was that of Charles Jess Palmer, who killed Eugene Zimmerman during a robbery in March 1979. Palmer, 68, died in August 2006 while on death row, where he had been since 1980.
Young said he knew such a case could come up when he first filed to be the county attorney and he feels it is his job to follow the rules set up by the Unicameral.
"If I didn't think I could handle it, I wouldn't have run for office," he said.
Young thanked his staff for their help, particularly Sarah Carstensen and Gail Vermaas, who assisted with the trial. Young commended law enforcement and the trial jury for their work as well.
Torres is already an inmate at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. In February 2008, he was sentenced, following a jury trial, to 90 to 140 years in prison for kidnapping, robbery and two counts of using a gun to commit a felony.
Nebraska's death row inmates
— John Lotter, 38, killed Teena Brandon in Humboldt in 1993 after finding out she was a woman posing as a man. The case inspired the movie "Boys Don't Cry." He has been on death row since 1996.
— David Dunster, 55, killed his cell mate in 1997. He has been on death row since 2000.
— Raymond Mata Jr., 36, killed his girlfriend's 3-year-old son in Scottsbluff in 1999. He has been on death row since 2000.
— Jose Sandoval, 30; Jorge Galindo, 28; and Eric Vela, 29, shot five people during a bank robbery in Norfolk in 2002. Sandoval has been on death row since 2003, Galindo since 2004 and Vela since 2007.
— Arthur Gales, 44, killed a woman and her 7-year-old son in Omaha in 2000. He has been on death row since 2003.
— Jeffrey Hessler, 31, killed a 15-year-old newspaper carrier in Gering in 2003. He has been on death row since 2005.