A man found guilty of murdering a Lake Highlands teenager was sentenced to life in prison.
The jury took just six minutes to come to a decision Monday afternoon.
On Saturday, the 12-member jury found Antonio Cochran guilty of murder in the stabbing death of 18-year-old Zoe Hastings.
In doing so, the panel declined to find him guilty of capital murder, which would have sent him to prison automatically for life without the possibility of parole.
The jury’s decision Saturday came as a great disappointment to the parents of Zoe Hastings, who clearly hoped the jury would find him guilty of capital murder. They were too upset to comment after the verdict was read.
By the time the verdict was read, the jury had deliberated for four days. They deliberated about 23 hours total – roughly the same about of time they heard testimony during the capital murder case.
Hastings disappeared in October 2015 after leaving home to return a movie and attend church. Her body and the minivan were found the following day in a creek bed.
The case against Cochran was a circumstantial case built largely around Cochran’s DNA being on the handle of the murder weapon, cell phone records and other DNA evidence showing he could not be excluded as a contributor of the DNA.
Cochran stood as the verdict was read. He did not react.
It’s been clear for the last four days that the jury was having a tough reaching a verdict. They repeatedly asked questions about the testimony of the two eyewitnesses. It appears the defense successfully raised about Gary Whitman, a homeless drug addict with a long criminal history, and whether he could have seen what he claimed to have seen.
He came forward after seeing news accounts of Cochran’s arrest. He was in jail at the time. He said Cochran’s walk matched the walk of the man he saw abduct Hastings, but neither he nor the other eyewitness could identity Cochran as Hastings’ kidnapper.
Police found Whitman’s account believable because he described the suspect as making a stabbing motion to get her in the minivan. It was not publicly known at that point that Hastings had been stabbed.
On Saturday, at the jury’s request, the judge read back testimony of lead detective Scott Sayers regarding what Whitman and the other eyewitness, Lester Clark, told him.
Their accounts matched in one respect. Both said that a black man rushed up to Hastings, but their accounts diverged in other ways from what the man was wearing to how the confrontation between Hasting and the man occurred. Jurors listed intently as the judge read the testimony.
By convicting Cochran of murder, that indicates the jury could not come to a unanimous finding on whether Hastings was abducted.
The eyewitness testimony was key to the kidnapping allegations in the capital murder indictment. To find someone guilty of capital murder, you have to find that they committed felony in the commission of a murder.
Just before noon, jury came back asking what the punishment range would be if they found Cochran guilty of murder. They also wanted to know if they found him guilty of murder who determines punishment.
Those questions were a clear sign that the jury was leaning toward a verdict of murder, not capital murder.
After reading the testimony of Sayers to them around noon time, District Judge Robert Burns asked the jury foreman in open court if the jury would be able to reach a verdict. The foreman responded, “I do not know. It is difficult right now.”
The judge then read them what’s known as the “Allen Charge,” an unusual step that’s only taken when a jury appears to be deadlocked. In the instruction, he explained that if there were a mistrial, the indictment against Cochran would still be pending and it would be tried again by another jury and they too would likely have the same questions.
“There is no reason to hope the next jury will find these questions any easier to decide than you have found them,” he said, reading the instruction.
He ended requesting them to continue their deliberations “in an effort to arrive at a unanimous verdict.”
They returned with the verdict of murder about two hours later.
The punishment phase starts at 9 a.m. Monday. Cochran could receive anywhere from five to 99 years in prison.