OPELIKA, Ala. — A former Army soldier who claimed to be mentally disturbed from his deployment in Iraq was convicted of capital murder Thursday in the abduction and shooting death of an Auburn University student from Georgia.
Jurors deliberated about six-and-a-half hours over two days before convicting Courtney Lockhart, 26, of rural Smith Station, in the killing of 18-year-old freshman Lauren Burk of Marietta, Ga.
Wearing a black suit, Lockhart sat calmly with his lawyers and showed no emotion when Circuit Judge Jacob Walker read the verdict. Burk's family members, mostly sitting behind the prosecution table, began hugging each other and patting each other on the back.
Jurors then voted 12-0 after deliberating for another hour to recommend sentencing him to life in prison without parole, rather than death by injection. The judge is not bound by the jury's recommendation. He tentatively set sentencing for Jan. 28.
But District Attorney Nick Abbett, who is retiring in January, said it might be hard for the judge to overturn an unanimous recommendation for life.
"That was a pretty strong statement from the jury," Abbett said.
Burk's sister, Jaklyn Semones of Alpharetta, Ga., said she felt fine with the life in prison without parole recommendation.
"I'm just happy this has come to an end. Justice was done," Semones said.
Burk's father, Jim Burk, released a written statement thanking police, prosecutors and the jury of eight men and four women for the verdict.
"We still have some questions as to why this happened, but hopefully we can find answers in the future. We continue to love and pray for Lauren," he said.
Burk was abducted on the night of March 4, 2008, as she got into her car in a campus parking lot after visiting her boyfriend. According to statements given by Lockhart, he pulled a gun on the screaming student, trying to rob her, and forced her into her car as he drove it off.
During the argued sentencing, jurors heard emotional testimony from Lockhart's mother and father, who expressed sorrow for the grief the son caused the Burk family.
His mother, Catherine Lockhart Williams, tearfully apologized to Burk's mother, who was sitting in the front row of the gallery.
"I just want to say to you and your whole family that I am sorry. I feel your pain because I am a mother, too. If I could I would get up and hug you but they probably wouldn't let me do that," said Williams.
In a statement to police read to jurors earlier during the trial, Lockhart said he ordered her to disrobe, not to have sex with her but because he thought it would make her less likely to escape the car. At one point Lockhart said he spoke of his problems: "We started talking about how my life was over. She said she could help me get a job," he said in a written statement.
But Burk was shot in the back at close range as she opened the door and jumped from the car.
"I just had the gun right there and it went off," Lockhart was heard saying on a mostly garbled videotape played at the trial.
The nude student collapsed on the road and bled to death as Lockhart drove off and later burned the car on the Auburn campus. He was captured three days later in Phenix City after a car chase when he was a suspect in a robbery attempt in Newnan, Ga.
Prosecutor Kisha Abercrombie said in closing arguments Wednesday that the defendant knew his revolver was ready to fire as he drove Burk's car on rural roads near Auburn.
"He knew that the gun was cocked. After he killed her ... he started covering his tracks," Abercrombie said.
But defense attorney Joel Collins argued that if Lockhart had wanted to kill the student, he could have done it when he first grabbed her in the parking lot or pulled off the road at any time and shot her.
Lee County District Attorney Nick Abbett raised Lockhart's military experience as a reason the shooting wasn't accidental.
"Someone who has been in combat knows how to handle a weapon," Abbett said. "He pointed the gun at her, with the hammer cocked back."
Though Lockhart's attorneys argued he had mental troubles, a psychologist who testified for the defense could not say for certain that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another psychologist for the prosecution told the jury that Lockhart showed no signs of mental disorder and understood that what he did was wrong.