RALEIGH — LaChanda Powell stood up in a Wake County courtroom Friday, shortly after a jury spared the life of the man convicted of murdering her sister.
Armond Devega, 32, sat by his attorneys at the defense table, stony faced and emotionally flat, as he had for most of the past three months.
Powell was in tears, her voice rising and falling.
Six years have passed since her older sister, Stephanie Powell Anderson, was killed in the Wilco-Hess convenience store on Trawick Road. Devega was convicted Monday of first-degree murder for that April 2008 shooting. He also was found guilty of six robberies in 2008 that prosecutors contend became progressively more violent.
Powell recalled the phone call from her brother on April 10, 2008, the day Anderson was shot and killed after being unable to open the safe in the North Raleigh store she was opening in the morning.
“On the day that she got killed a part of me died, too, because she was a second mom to me,” Powell told the courtroom. “When my brother called and told me she was gone, I was like, ‘Where did she go?’ … I had to stop my car, and I just got on my knees and started screaming.”
Anderson left behind a 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. Powell took in the children and their pets and worked to offer them the kind of life her sister would have wanted, she said.
“The day we had to bury her was the day I can never get out of my head,” Powell told the jury. “We are at peace with what y’all did decide. I don’t blame anybody else, not the family members, not anybody else but him because he did do it.”
In closing arguments on Thursday for the sentencing phase, defense attorneys argued that Devega should be spared the death penalty because he suffered from mental disorders and brain damage.
The eight men and four women on the jury that recommended life in prison without possibility for parole determined that mitigating factors offered by the defense team outweighed the aggravating factors offered by prosecutors.
The jurors asked Judge Paul Gessner whether they could be escorted out of the courthouse Friday to, in part, avoid having to talk with reporters.
The jury’s recommended sentence comes when many questions are being raised nationally about the death penalty and state-supported executions.
A botched execution in Oklahoma last month and the prolonged death of an Ohio inmate in January after a previously untested two-drug cocktail was used have brought renewed scrutiny to lethal injections.
On Thursday, as prosecutors and defense attorneys offered arguments for and against the death penalty for Devega in Wake County, the Tennessee governor signed legislation to use the electric chair for executions in cases where lethal-injection drugs cannot be obtained.
European pharmaceutical companies that had been large suppliers of pentobarbital, the lethal injection drug of choice, have blocked further sales of the drug for such purposes on moral and legal grounds.
In North Carolina, death row inmates have challenged state execution procedures as cruel and unusual punishment that they contend violates the state and U.S. constitutions.
Their lawsuit and others have created a de-facto moratorium on executions for nearly seven years.
In Wake County, a jury has not recommended a death sentence since 2007.
Defense attorney Phil Lane stopped outside the Devega trial Friday and said he thinks it is time for the N.C. General Assembly to consider whether capital punishment should still be an option in this state.
Becky Holt and Matt Lively, the Wake County district attorneys who prosecuted the case, said after the trial that the jury’s recommendation against death did not necessarily signal a decline in support for capital punishment.
“When we’re doing jury selection, it always surprises me to hear people who say they support the death penalty for all murders,” Holt said.
Typically, those people are left off capital case juries, as are those who are opposed to the death penalty in any circumstance. That leaves people willing to consider capital punishment, Holt and Lively said.
The past two capital cases in Wake County have brought recommendations of life in prison instead of capital punishment.
“You’re certainly listening to the community and these jurors and what they have to say about it,” Holt said.
But she said prosecutors considered the Devega case to be one in which the death penalty was offered as a possibility because it was among “the worst of the worst.”
In addition to the life sentence without possibility for parole in the murder case, Gessner sentenced Devega to 57 to 72 years for the robberies – the maximum possible.
“For three months, you’ve sat here and you’ve showed no remorse for anything you’ve done,” Gessner said. “You’ve shed tears one time, and that was when they were talking about you. You told Stephanie Anderson you didn’t care. That’s the last thing she heard before she died.”
Lively and Holt read a letter from Jared Anderson, the now 18-year-old son of the victim.
Stephanie Anderson was described as a churchgoing woman who loved to sing in the choir.
“Her not being here has left a deep void in my heart,” Jared Anderson wrote in the letter.
Chenise Anderson, now 21, and a day care worker in Alexandria, Va., said her mother was her best friend and a role model who put others’ needs before her own.
“It’s still hard for me to accept that I will not see my mom anymore,” Chenise Anderson said in a letter that Holt read. “I will not be able to see her smile, hear her laugh, give her a hug or even tell her I love her and hear her say it back. Sometimes I wish I could just turn back the hands of time because she didn’t deserve this.”
After the jurors left the courtroom and Devega was ushered out to prison by the bailiffs, two families lingered.
Devega’s mother and father walked across the courtroom to the mother and daughter sitting behind the prosecutors’ table. The Powells – LaChanda and her wheelchair-bound mother – looked up to the parents of the man whose life had just been spared by a jury.
They extended their arms.
“May God bless you,” Devega’s father said to the mother and sister of his son’s victim. “Peace.”
The women embraced their visitors.
“Peace,” they said.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1