BOUNTIFUL — It took a jury six hours Friday to decide the fate of Robert Cameron Houston, 18, who now will spend the rest of his natural life behind bars for the brutal murder of youth counselor Raechale Elton.
As 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson quietly read the verdict, sobs erupted on both sides of the courtroom from both the Elton and Houston families as they wept over the jury's decision.
"There are no winners here," said Carol Houston, the killer's mother, through tears. "Both families have lost."
Houston admitted killing Elton in February 2006, but since he was 17 at the time of the crime, the death penalty was not an option. A jury had to decide his sentence and was presented with two choices: life in prison with no hope of ever getting out, or 20-years-to-life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Fourteen people sat through the weeklong sentencing phase of the trial, and on Friday, two alternates were dismissed, leaving five men and seven women to decide Houston's fate. Only one, a young man, voted against the life without parole sentence.
Throughout the proceedings, Elton had been described as a high-achieving, loving and idealistic young woman who cared deeply for her family, made friends everywhere she went, and was determined to help delinquent teenagers who had no one else.
Robert Houston, meanwhile, was shown to be a battered and sexually abused child, born with handicaps for which he was mocked, and, according to defense attorneys, has an untreated obsessive compulsive disorder that floods his mind with uncontrollable thoughts of sexual violence.
The jury spent its time behind closed doors in careful, thoughtful debate and frequently wept as each juror worked toward a verdict, according to juror Deborah Brady.
"I feel very good about the decision we came to. I wanted to stand up for that decision," Brady said after the hearing." I feel it was fair and just."
She described the entire week as "very emotional."
She said her perception was that all jurors went back and forth as to what to do, and it was difficult to pin down just what persuaded any one person to finally make a particular choice. Among the major topics of discussion were Houston's youth, the extreme violence of the crime, the fact that life-without-parole prisoners get fewer educational and treatment opportunities behind bars, as well as a heartfelt recognition of the terrible loss suffered by Elton's family.
Another juror, Charlotte Francis, said she felt Houston's mother, Carol Houston, had not been treated fairly by a number of witnesses. "One of the expert witnesses said Carol was as good a mother as she could be, considering the circumstances. She tried to get her son help.
"It's my hope she will be able to continue to be a loving mother to him."
Francis noted that Linda Gummow, a neuropsychologist, testified that Robert Houston would have been a difficult child in any home.
While leaving the courthouse, Elton's father, Bruce, had only a brief comment when asked about the verdict: "We're pretty happy and we love our daughter and we're really proud of her."
Carol Houston also spoke briefly, weeping as she did so. "It's a sad day for all of us."
She said her son was crying in the holding cell in the courthouse after hearing the verdict.
Elton had offered the teenager a ride to the independent living center on the evening of a fierce February 2006 snowstorm. Houston raped her and stabbed her repeatedly.
"This is a young man who is dangerous," said prosecutor William McGuire, adding that society does not need Houston out in the community where he could hurt someone else. As for defense claims that Houston had been misdiagnosed and improperly treated for mental problems, McGuire said Houston had been in a residential center for two years before murdering Elton.
"He lived for two years with therapy. Now it's time for justice to take its course," McGuire said.
Defense attorney Rich Gallegos said, "The jury made its decision and it gave thoughtful consideration to it. I think you have to respect the jury's verdict."
Asked about Houston's state of mind after the decision, Gallegos said the young man was "upset." "Here's an 18-year-old kid who's just been handed a sentence of life in prison without parole."