EASTON, Pa. | The Easton man convicted in what authorities called a revenge killing more than a decade ago inside the Easton Cafe will spend the rest of his life in prison after a Northampton County jury deadlocked Monday on whether to impose the death penalty.
Jurors convicted Jacob Holmes Jr. last week of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder for the 2009 shooting of Miguel Aponte. The jury reached its verdict following five days of prosecution testimony and less than three hours of deliberations.
Shortly before 8 p.m., the jury foreperson notified the judge that after “vigorous debate” the jury would not be able to come to a unanimous decision on either life or death.
Jurors agreed that Holmes was illegally carrying a firearm during the homicide, one of the aggravating factors to be considered for the death penalty. But some jurors found there were mitigating factors that outweighed the aggravating factor, leaving them deadlocked, according to a note to the judge.
As a result, Northampton County President Judge Michael Koury dismissed the “hopelessly deadlocked” jury that was unable to sentence Holmes to either life in prison without an opportunity for parole or the death penalty. He dismissed the jury and agreed to impose a life sentence on Holmes.
The judge deferred sentencing, however, until 10 a.m. Feb. 23, when Holmes is also scheduled to be sentenced on the conspiracy to commit murder charge. Despite the life sentence, Holmes also faces another 20 to 40 years on the conspiracy charge.
Holmes' co-defendant, Franklin Barndt, previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence.
Defense attorney Brian Monahan said he was not surprised by the jury deadlocking on the death penalty given the facts of the case.
"This is a nasty business. There are no winners here," he said. "One man is dead, and one man will spend the rest of his life in prison."
Northampton County District Attorney Terence Houck praised the jury for its work during the death penalty phase of the trial. Jurors put a lot of hard work into deliberations, which lasted longer than the guilt phase of the trial, he said.
"It was obvious that it was a tough decision for them," Houck said.
It was clear that jurors had a real difference of opinion on whether to sentence Holmes to death or life in prison, Houck said, and he wasn't going to question the fact they were deadlocked after hours of deliberations.
"I have no issue with it," Houck said.
The death penalty phase of the case began last Friday with opening statements and witness testimony. The defense offered testimony Monday from a mitigation specialist, and jurors heard closing arguments. Deliberations began about 4 p.m.
Authorities maintain Aponte's murder stemmed from a 2006 beef at the C.R. Fanny's strip club in which Holmes was shot and his friend killed.
Before closing arguments, the defense called mitigation specialist Juandalynn Taylor to testify. Mitigation specialists are used in death penalty cases to advocate for a client’s life and are asked to help the court understand a defendant’s background and mental health or developmental disorders.
Taylor testified as to Holmes’ history of drug and alcohol abuse and family background, including domestic violence and his father’s own drug use all of which she deemed a “checklist for dysfunction.” And she noted the death of his mother who she described as Holmes’ “rock.”
But Houck reminded the jury of how Holmes drove from the South Side of Easton, grabbed a hidden gun, covered his face and slipped into a back door to kill Aponte. And he asked jurors not to believe any of the “psychobabble” about his upbringing to mitigate his responsibility.
“Holmes is a killer,” Houck told the jury. “And he killed in a thought out and deceitful way. It wasn’t because of some type of mental issue.”
Calling Holmes a “murdering, remorseless, coward,” Houck asked jurors to give serious consideration to whether the defense offered evidence that truly justifies life in prison instead of the death penalty. Or were the defense witnesses just meant to tug at their heartstrings, he said.
The defense asked the jury to consider Holmes’ age at the time of the shooting as a mitigating factor. But Holmes was 28 years old, a grown man, when he killed Aponte, not a teen trying to make a name for himself on the streets, Houck said. And if you’re not responsible for your actions at age 28, are you responsible at 29 or 30, he asked.
“You see the absurdity of this, I’m sure,” Houck told the jury. “The idea is to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.”
Every tear shed and every sleepless night experienced by Aponte’s family falls at the feet of Holmes, Houck said. There are plenty of people who come from disadvantaged homes and turn out to be good parents and lead productive lives, he said. And Holmes shouldn’t benefit from the fact that miraculously no one else was killed, when he started firing in the tiny confines of the Easton Café, according to the prosecution.
“The callous disregard for human life is what you should consider,” Houck said.
Holmes decided in 2006 outside C.R. Fanny’s that he was going to avenge his friend’s killing, Houck said. This is a case in which a term of life in prison isn’t enough, he said.
“Don’t give him what he desires, give him what he deserves,” Houck said.
Monahan told the jury that he wasn’t going to offer a recitation of the facts of the case. Jurors found the facts and found Holmes guilty, he said. But as he did in his opening statements of the penalty phase, Monahan reminded the jury of the gravity of the decision they were about to make.
“It’s a serious, somber moment,” he said. “Your decision is a decision that will weigh heavily upon you for the rest of your life.”
There was nothing compassionate about the victim’s killing, the defense said. But if the jury decides to impose the death penalty, some jurors may ask themselves later in life whether they did the right thing, Monahan said, arguing that the mitigating factors were applicable.
The defense’s experts concluded that Holmes will benefit from life skills classes, substance abuse programs and the structure prison will offer, Monahan said. But make no mistake that sitting in state prison for 30 years or more might in fact be a worse fate than death, he said.
“We’re asking that you spare him, so that every day for the rest of his life Mr. Holmes thinks about the dastardly thing he did to Mr. Aponte,” Monahan said.