Ignacio "Nacho" Vergara, 26, showed no emotion as Senior Superior Court Judge John Girardeau, after a tense pause to look over the verdict form, read aloud the sentence of the nine-man, three-woman jury. The panel spent more than four hours over two days deliberating his fate.
Vergara, convicted in the March 2002 drug-related killings of two men on a remote South Hall Road, faced a possible sentence of death by lethal injection.
The same jury on Tuesday found Vergara guilty of murder in the shooting deaths of Alejandro Santana and Francisco Saucedo, two Gwinnett County men killed for 2 kilograms of cocaine while they sat in a car on Bragg Road near Flowery Branch.
The admitted gunman in the killings, Brigido Soto, pleaded guilty to murder last year in exchange for two anticipated sentences of life without parole. Soto testified last week that Vergara planned the murders, supplied the gun and ordered Soto to shoot the two men.
The victims’ family and friends, several of whom attended portions of the nearly three-week trial, were not in the courtroom for the jury’s sentencing verdict Thursday morning.
Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh, who on Wednesday urged the jury not to give Vergara a chance at parole, said he was satisfied with the sentence. He noted that prosecutors would not have been able to secure a life sentence without the possibility of parole unless they had sought the death penalty.
Darragh said the state was grateful for a "thoughtful" jury that "came to a just conclusion."
"We are pleased that this murderous criminal will be incarcerated until the day he dies," Darragh said.
Vergara’s family members reacted to the jury’s sentence with tears. They continued to maintain his innocence. Appeals will be filed on Vergara’s behalf, a standard procedure in such cases.
"We’re going to fight until we can’t fight anymore," Vergara’s mother, Maria Lucia Mendez, said through tears afterward.
A cousin of the defendant, Lucero Mendez, acknowledged that the jury’s decision not to impose a death sentence brought some measure of relief to the family.
"Like his lawyer said, it’s life, not death," Mendez said.
A representative of the Mexican consulate’s office in Atlanta was on hand to hear the sentence. Vergara is a Mexican citizen who entered the United States illegally, according to law enforcement officials. The consulate’s representative said he could not comment.
Several jurors who were approached by a reporter as they left the courthouse declined to comment on the case.
The jury of 12 men and four women, including alternates, spent nine days sequestered in an area hotel with limited access to phones, television and the Internet and with near-constant supervision by bailiffs. Girardeau took time to meet with the jurors privately after the trial’s conclusion.
Lee Parks, one of Vergara’s two court-appointed attorneys, joined Darragh in praising the jury’s diligence.
"It was clear to us that the people in that jury box paid close and careful attention to everything," Parks said. "As defense attorneys, we appreciate that."
Parks said of the jury’s sentence, "Anytime you have a client against whom the state is seeking the death penalty and the jury chooses life, that, at least to some extent, is a victory."
Vergara was not asked whether he had anything to say before the sentence was imposed. His opportunity to speak would have come during testimony in the sentencing phase, Parks said.
Parks declined to reveal anything his client told him after the sentence was announced, citing attorney-client privilege, but said "he did not appear upset by the decision."
The sentencing verdict marked the first time in the last five death penalty cases tried in Hall County during a 14-year span that a jury did not vote for death.
Stephen Anthony Mobley, who has since been executed, was sentenced to death in 1994 for the shooting death of an Oakwood pizza store manager. David Scott Franks and Scotty Morrow are on death row after Hall County jurors sentenced them to death in separate trials in 1998 and 1999. And Clay Barrett received a death sentence from a Hall County jury in 2005 in a murder case that was moved from Towns County.
Vergara’s trial was the first locally prosecuted death penalty case in nine years and took more than six years to get to trial. Three district attorneys and at least seven defense attorneys have been involved with Vergara’s and Soto’s cases during that time. Girardeau, the presiding judge since the beginning, took senior status while the trial was pending but remained on the case.
A number of pretrial appeals contributed to the delay in bringing the Vergara case to trial. Two issues were decided by the Georgia Supreme Court in February.
Parks, noting that death penalty cases typically take several years to get to trial, said the appeals were necessary.
"The time that was taken to get to this point was the time necessary to ensure that we could get to this point," Parks said.
Darragh and Parks both confirmed that efforts were made to dispose of Vergara’s case without a trial through a negotiated plea agreement.
"Obviously those discussions did not result in any kind of agreement, or we wouldn’t have had this trial the last three weeks," Parks said.
Two death penalty cases remain pending in Hall County Superior Court.