At age 15, Chaz Stringer walked into a tiny take-out restaurant on Athens Street armed with a small handgun, demanded money and shot wildly at a worker, killing him, a Hall County jury decided Saturday.
Now Stringer, at 17, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison, with the chance of parole in 14 years, after being convicted of murder.
"It's not a happy day," said David Ellwanger, the 52-year-old high school teacher who served as the foreman on the jury that decided Stringer's guilt. "There are no winners. The truth of the case is the tragedy of it."
Friends and relatives of Victor "Charlie" De La Rosa, the 29-year-old restaurant worker who died of a gunshot wound to the chest, were not present in court when the verdict was announced at about 9:30 a.m.
Stringer stood stoically with his attorney as the verdict was read. He put his hands to his face after being led from the courtroom in handcuffs. Three relatives of the teen, including his mother, looked on from the gallery.
The panel of seven women and five men spent more than nine hours deliberating the case over three days. At one point, half of the jurors were in favor of acquittal, Ellwanger said. The age of the defendant weighed heavily on their minds, he said.
"I still don't think he wanted to kill anybody, and yet we understand what felony murder is and what the law says," Ellwanger said.
Stringer was convicted of causing De La Rosa's death while in the commission of an attempted armed robbery. He was also found guilty of aggravated assault for placing De La Rosa's co-worker, Israel Garcia, in fear for his life. Garcia witnessed the shooting and pointed out Stringer, who wore a sheer black mask over his face, as the gunman during the trial.
It was Stringer's confession to police, however, that proved to be the most insurmountable piece of evidence for the defense. Stringer told Gainesville Police Investigator Kevin Gaddis "I did it" some five hours after the shooting, and provided details to corroborate his admission.
Stringer testified at trial that he made a false confession in order to cover for an older friend who was the real killer, thinking he would get lighter punishment as a juvenile. He was charged as an adult.
Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin has limited options in the sentence she will hand down next week. Under Georgia law, a murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence, with parole eligibility after 14 years.
Had the crime occurred a month later, the teen would not have been eligible for parole until he served 30 years of his sentence. Last year, the Georgia legislature changed the parole policy for murders committed on or after July 1, 2006. De La Rosa was shot to death on June 8, 2006.
After Stringer admitted to the shooting, he asked the detective if the victim died. The bullet initially passed through De La Rosa's left hand before lodging in his chest.
"He's dead? No," Stringer told the detective.
The gunman fled the store without taking any money. The gun was tossed and never recovered.
Stringer's attorneys, Brian Steel and Donna Lockwood, were not immediately available for comment after the verdict. Efforts to reach Garcia for comment were unsuccessful. The restaurant was closed Saturday.
Northeast Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Juliet Aldridge, who tried the case with the help of prosecutor Vanessa Sykes, said afterward, "We appreciate the jury's service and feel like they gave the verdict that spoke the truth."
It wasn't easy, the jury foreman said.
"We knew what was at stake and nobody took it lightly," Ellwanger said. "There was a lot of tears and anguish."