BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Dressed in orange jailhouse garb rather than the suit he wore at trial, Guy Heinze Jr. bowed his head as a judge sentenced him to life in prison with no chance of parole. A quirk of legal maneuvering had spared Heinze from a possible death sentence for the 2009 beating deaths of his father and seven others.
Relatives of the victims said they never wanted to see Heinze executed.
"That's the easy way out," said Diane Isenhower, whose ex-husband and four children were among the eight people beaten to death four years ago inside a cramped mobile home they shared with Heinze.
"From day one, we told them, 'No death penalty,'" said Hazel Sumner, who identified herself as a cousin to Isenhower's family.
Heinze, 26, was sentenced Thursday afternoon in Glynn County Superior Court less than a week after a jury convicted him of malice murder in the Aug. 29, 2009, slayings. Prosecutors dropped the death penalty as an option last week as part of a last-minute deal with defense attorneys that allowed them to avoid a hung jury.
Under Georgia law, Heinze faced an automatic life sentence once the death penalty was off the table. The only thing Judge Stephen Scarlett had to decide was whether the defendant would ever be eligible for parole.
Heinze's attorneys, who insisted he is innocent, presented no witnesses and said little to try to persuade Scarlett before he imposed his sentence. Newell Hamilton Jr., Heinze's lead defense attorney, declined to comment after Thursday's hearing.
"There are people who believe in Guy and believe he's innocent," said Heather Teston, who said she has been a friend of Heinze since high school. "Maybe they should have moved the trial somewhere else .... I think ultimately he was railroaded by the justice system."
In a frantic 911 call made the morning the bodies were discovered, Heinze cried out: "My whole family is dead!"
Heinze's trial nearly ended with a hung jury last week on the third day of deliberations. But prosecutors last Friday dropped the death penalty in a deal with Heinze's lawyers to allow the trial judge to dismiss one juror and replace him with an alternate. A guilty verdict was returned four hours later. Afterward, prosecutors said only that there had been "a situation" with the dismissed juror that contributed to the deadlock.
Jurors were unaware that prosecutors had ruled out a possible death sentence until after they returned with a guilty verdict.
Prosecutors said Heinze had been smoking crack cocaine when he killed his father and the other victims, all members of an extended family. They said he killed the first victim in a dispute over a bottle of prescription painkillers he wanted to steal, then killed the others to avoid getting caught.
Each of the victims died from multiple crushing blows to the head from what police believe was a shotgun barrel, jurors heard. Autopsies showed they suffered a combined total of more than 220 wounds. The murder weapon was never found.
Although the attack happened in the night and most of the victims were found in bed, defense attorneys argued a single assailant couldn't possibly have inflicted such carnage. They insisted that Heinze would not kill loved ones over a bottle of weak prescription pills and that police ignored evidence and alternate suspects in a rush to accuse him.
Heinze had told police he found the victims' bodies after returning from a late night away from home.
The dead included Heinze's father, Guy Heinze Sr., 45. Rusty Toler Sr., 44, was slain along with his four children: Chrissy Toler, 22; Russell D. Toler Jr., 20; Michael Toler, 19; and Michelle Toler, 15. Also killed was the elder Toler's sister, Brenda Gail Falagan, 49, and Joseph L. West, the 30-year-old boyfriend of Chrissy Toler. Her 3-year-old son, Byron Jimerson Jr., ended up the sole survivor but suffered severe head injuries.