CLEVELAND — A serial killer was sentenced to death Friday for murdering 11 troubled women and scattering their remains around his property, horrors that shook the city over police handling of crime in poor neighborhoods.
Anthony Sowell, 51, his eyes closed at times, sat impassively as Judge Dick Ambrose – accepting the recommendation of jurors who convicted Sowell of aggravated murder – announced 11 death sentences.
Jurors, some wiping tears, returned to court to watch. The judge had the option of reducing the sentence to life in prison without chance of parole.
The judge alluded to Sowell’s stone-faced demeanor, saying he doubted it would have prompted reaction if the photos of victims had been brought into court daily, as some relatives of victims wanted.
Sowell never looked at relatives as they spoke during the sentencing hearing. He ignored the judge when asked if he wanted to speak and again when asked to sign a legal document.
“That’s his personality,” defense attorney Rufus Sims said later.
Fellow defense attorney John Parker said he had no comment on the sentence.
By law, Sowell’s conviction and death sentence will be automatically appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. That process could take 10 years or more, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason said.
Mason earlier had rejected an appeal by the relatives of some victims to accept a plea in return for sparing Sowell’s life so that they could avoid the wrenching emotion of a trial. The community needed to see the case go to trial, Mason said.
Sowell was arrested on Halloween 2009, two days after police went to his house on a sexual-assault complaint and began finding bodies. He went on trial in June and was convicted July 22 on 82 counts: aggravated murder, kidnapping, corpse abuse and evidence tampering.
Some families complained that police hadn’t taken the women’s disappearances seriously, in part because some victims had drug histories, criminal records or had disappeared repeatedly. After the bodies were found, the mayor ordered a review of police handling of missing-person and sex-crime investigations.
Donnita Carmichael, whose mother, Tonia Carmichael, was killed, told the judge as jurors and other relatives quietly cried that she could never forgive Sowell.
“We will continue to be here when you are long gone,” said the 34-year-old Carmichael, prompting a murmur of agreement in the court.
“We have been crying since Nov. 10, 2008,” when her mother died, Carmichael said.
Outside court, she complained that Sowell had failed to show remorse during the sentencing. “There’s no soul there,” she said.
Florence Bray, mother of a victim and aunt of another, welcomed the death penalty. “We can find peace and move on with our lives,” she said.
Assistant Prosecutor Pinky Carr has said the case “screamed death penalty.” Her prosecution colleague, Richard Bombik, said “if this guy doesn’t get the death penalty, nobody should.”
Sowell’s defense team called no witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial and instead focused on sparing his life with sympathetic testimony about his troubled childhood, his Marine Corps service and good behavior while serving 15 years for a 1989 attempted rape conviction.
Sowell’s victims began disappearing in 2007. Prosecutors say he lured them to his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs.
Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman’s report that she had been raped there.
The victims were disposed of in garbage bags and plastic sheets, then dumped in various parts of the house and yard. There was little left of one victim: a skull in a plastic bucket with non-human bite marks on the edge.
The rotting bodies created an overpowering stench that neighbors blamed on an adjacent sausage factory. The owner spent $20,000 on new plumbing fixtures and sewer lines, to no avail.
Most of the victims were nude from the waist down, strangled with household objects and had traces of cocaine or depressants in their systems. All the victims were black, as is Sowell.
Jurors sat through weeks of disturbing and emotional testimony before convicting Sowell. They saw photographs of the victims’ blackened, skeletal corpses lying on autopsy tables and listened to police describe how their bodies had been left to rot.
Sowell took the stand Monday to make an unsworn statement in which he apologized.
“The only thing I want to say is I’m sorry,” Sowell told the jury. “I know that might not sound like much, but I truly am sorry from the bottom of my heart.”
The jury didn’t buy it: They said his statement, which was guided by questions from Parker, sounded rehearsed and lacked remorse.