FORT BRAGG — A military jury sentenced a soldier to death Thursday for the murders of a North Carolina mother and two of her children in 1985.
Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis did not visibly react when the verdict was read. One of his lawyers, Lt. Col. Andrew Glass, put his hand on Hennis' back.
Hennis' wife, Angela, sitting behind the defense table, began crying and put a tissue to her eyes.
The sentence for Hennis, 52, will be reviewed by a commanding officer and automatically appealed.
"Timothy Hennis, I want to be perfectly clear, maintains his innocence, will continue to maintain his innocence, and we will fight for reversal of his conviction on appeal," said Frank Spinner, a civilian defense attorney for Hennis.
The 14-person military jury took less than three hours last week to convict Hennis of the premeditated murders of Kathryn Eastburn and her young daughters in their Fayetteville home.
The same jury deliberated for 13 hours over three days during the sentencing phase.
"I think he deserves to die for what he did," said Eastburn's husband, Air Force Capt. Gary Eastburn, shortly after the jury announced its decision.
Eastburn said it didn't matter to him whether Hennis is executed or dies in prison, but he supports the death sentence because it leaves almost no chance for Hennis to ever be free.
Eastburn said that after an earlier trial ended in acquittal he had decided to move on with his life, but that the sentence Thursday brought a sense of relief.
"I don't want you to think I'm gloating over this," he said. "I'm not."
Tried three times
Hennis was first convicted in state court but appealed and was acquitted in a second trial. Later, testing linked Hennis' DNA to the crimes. He couldn't be tried in state court again, so prosecutors brought the case to the Army.
Hennis had retired but was forced back into service to face the charges.
This is the second time a soldier has received a death sentence at Fort Bragg in the last five years. Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar was sentenced to death in April 2005 for a grenade and rifle attack on his own comrades during the opening days of the Iraq invasion. His case is still in the appeals phase.
Soldiers sentenced to death are sent to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. If Hennis is executed, it would be by lethal injection. Under military law, the president must approve all death sentences. The last execution took place in 1961.
Hennis, who had adopted the Eastburns' dog several days before the killings, was arrested four days after the bodies of Eastburn and her 5-year-old and 3-year-old daughters were found. Gary Eastburn was in Alabama at squadron officers training school at the time.
Hennis, then an Army sergeant, was convicted of the killings in civilian court and sentenced to death in 1986. But the state Supreme Court gave him a new trial, in part because the justices said the evidence was weak. Jurors acquitted Hennis in 1989, saying then that prosecutors couldn't prove Hennis was inside the house at the time of the slayings.
Sperm DNA matched
His new trial in military court came after prosecutors said new DNA tests linked him to the crimes.
During the three-week military trial, Jennifer Hopper, a former forensic analyst with the State Bureau of Investigation, testified sperm on a vaginal swab taken from Eastburn's body matched Hennis' DNA profile. Using a database that mirrors the population of North Carolina, she said the odds that the sperm came from another white man were 12.1 thousand trillion to one.
The prosecutor, Capt. Matthew Scott, said Hennis might have been able to clean up the crime scene back then, but he couldn't clean up his DNA.
"The person that slaughtered her, raped her - the person that raped her left his sperm," Scott said.
But defense lawyer Frank Spinner stressed that no other physical evidence found in the home, including hair, fingerprints and a bloody towel, has been linked to Hennis. A defense expert testified during the trial that Hennis and the victim could have been intimate days before the killings.
"Their lives intersected with evil that night, but Sergeant Timothy Hennis was not the man that did these things," Spinner said.