BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Spared from a possible death sentence by a deal between lawyers, a Georgia man convicted of beating his father and seven others to death inside the mobile home they shared was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Guy Heinze Jr. was sentenced less than a week after a jury found him guilty of malice murder for the Aug. 29, 2009, slayings. Prosecutors dropped the death penalty as an option for 26-year-old Heinze last week as part of a deal with defense attorneys that allowed them to avoid a hung jury.
Relatives of the victims told reporters as they left the courthouse in Glynn County on Thursday that they had been opposed all along to Heinze receiving the death penalty.
"That's the easy way out," said Diane Isenhower, whose ex-husband and four children were among those slain. She said she's satisfied knowing Heinze should spend the rest of his life in prison. "It's a relief. Now I just pick up the pieces and go on."
Under Georgia law, Heinze faced an automatic life sentence once the death penalty was off the table. The only thing Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett had to decide was whether the defendant would ever be eligible for parole.
Heinze's attorneys, who have 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 the 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's since high school. "Maybe they should have moved the trial somewhere else. After four years, everybody here has been set in their opinions on the case. 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 almost 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 middle of 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.
Heinze told police his father went to live with the elder Toler's family when they were both teenagers. The suspect said he considered Rusty Toler Sr. to be his uncle, and the man's children were his cousins.
"Guy grew up in this family," said Hazel Sumner, who described herself as a cousin to the Toler family. "It was just greed and drugs that did this."