Death penalty recommended for man convicted in 2019 Sebring bank murders (2024)

A jury recommended Wednesday that a former prison guard trainee be sentenced to death for his execution-style murders of five women inside a Florida bank five years ago.

The Highlands County jury voted 9-3 to recommend that Zephen Xaver receive the death penalty for the Jan. 23, 2019, massacre at the SunTrust in Sebring.

The jury deliberated less than three hours before reaching its verdict.

The final sentencing decision rests with Circuit Judge Angela Cowden, who could reject the jury's recommendation and sentence Xaver, 27, to life in prison without parole. The judge is expected to set a sentencing date later.

Under a 2023 Florida law, the jury only had to vote 8-4 in favor of the death penalty for Cowden to impose that sentence. State law had required a unanimous jury recommendation for a judge to impose death, but Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature changed it after a 9-3 jury vote spared the shooter who murdered 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

A prosecutor argued at the killer's penalty trial earlier Wednesday that Xaver deserved the death penalty for the massacre, calling it "shockingly evil” and long-planned.

Assistant State Attorney Bonde Johnson also told jurors during closing arguments that the defendant carried out the mass shooting at Sebring's SunTrust bank to satisfy his yearslong desire to experience killing, forcing the women to lie down before executing them.

“He didn't murder one person to truly know what it would be like to kill. He killed five. He watched them laying there on the floor. They were under his control, for his enjoyment, as he shot each one,” Johnson said.

But defense attorney Jane McNeill had urged the 12 jurors to spare Xaver, saying he is mentally ill and has been hearing voices since childhood urging him to kill himself and others. He sought help, she said, but never truly got it.

“We ask you to show Zephen what he may least deserve — compassion, grace and mercy,” McNeill said, her voice breaking before the jury began its deliberations. “Compassion is not a limited resource. Grace is not limited. Mercy is not limited. Sentencing Zephen to life is the right thing to do.”

The jury was sequestered while considering whether Xaver should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Death penalty recommended for man convicted in 2019 Sebring bank murders (1)

Stephanie Colombini


WUSF Public Media

Xaver pleaded guilty last year to five counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 23, 2019, killings in Sebring. The trial was delayed for years by the COVID-19 pandemic, legal arguments and attorney illness.

Xaver's victims included customer Cynthia Watson, 65, who had been married less than a month; bank teller coordinator Marisol Lopez, 55, who was a mother of two; banker trainee Ana Pinon-Williams, a 38-year-old mother of seven; bank teller Debra Cook, a 54-year-old mother of two and a grandmother; and banker Jessica Montague, 31, a mother of one and stepmother of four.

He ordered them to lie on the floor and then shot them as they cried out, “Why?”

During the two-week trial, prosecutors portrayed Xaver as a cold and calculated killer, who pretends to hear voices as a cover for his violent impulses. His attorneys countered he has long suffered psychotic episodes. A defense physician told jurors he has a small, benign brain tumor that could explain his behavior — a prosecution doctor testified he doesn't.

In 2014, Xaver's high school principal in Indiana contacted police after he told a counselor that he dreamed of killing classmates, among other alarming behavior. His mother, Misty Hendricks, promised to get him psychological help. She testified at trial that she stopped his medications at 17 because he seemed to be doing better.

He joined the Army, but was discharged during boot camp in 2016 because of homicidal thoughts. Those thoughts continued, the jury heard.

“It’s all I can think of, it’s all I hear every day and it’s all I see every day. It’s all I smell and taste every day: blood, death and murder. It’s all I have happening 24/7,” Xaver wrote a friend. He made similar posts online.

He moved to Sebring in 2018. The local prison soon hired him, but he quit after two months. That was the day after he bought his gun and two weeks before the massacre.

The morning of the killings, he had a long text-message conversation with a girlfriend, telling her it would be the “best day of his life” but refused to say why.

He finally told her just minutes before he entered the bank: he was about to die. He then added “the fun part.”

“I’m taking a few people with me because I’ve always wanted to kill," he texted.

Following the killings, Xaver surrendered after speaking by phone with a sheriff's crisis negotiator. He told a detective, “I deserve to die for this.”

Death penalty recommended for man convicted in 2019 Sebring bank murders (2024)


Death penalty recommended for man convicted in 2019 Sebring bank murders? ›

Jurors voted 9-3 to recommend Zephen Xaver receive the death penalty for the Jan. 23, 2019, murders at the SunTrust Bank in Sebring. Xaver, 27, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion as the verdicts were read after the Highlands County jury deliberated for less than three hours.

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The death penalty in the United States is used almost exclusively for the crime of murder.

What crimes are punishable by death in Florida? ›

At the point when murder is premeditated and intended to cause death of any person, or it was submitted while the guilty party was executing or attempting to perpetrate arson, robbery, sexual battery, burglary or another serious felony, it is a capital felony and punishable by death or by life in prison without the ...

Why the death penalty is good? ›

Capital punishment is often defended on the grounds that society has a moral obligation to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens. Murderers threaten this safety and welfare. Only by putting murderers to death can society ensure that convicted killers do not kill again.

What are the requirements for the death penalty? ›

The federal cases in which a defendant is eligible for a capital sentence are generally those in which: (1) the defendant is charged with a crime for which the death penalty is a legally authorized sanction, (2) the defendant intended or had a high degree of culpability with respect to the death of the victim, and (3) ...

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Jump to section… The murder crisis continues to be far higher in red states in 2021 and 2022. Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama continue to dominate the top three spots. Even when large cities are removed from red states, murder rates are still higher.

Which state kills most death penalty? ›

Which States Have Carried Out the Most Executions? Texas has been responsible for the most executions over recent years by far, with 586 since 1977 as of the end of 2023.

What is 15 years to life? ›

A parole proceeding is a hearing to determine whether an offender is suitable for release to parole supervision. An example of a life sentence with the possibility of parole is when an offender is sentenced to serve a term of “15 years to life.”

How many years is a life sentence in Florida? ›

For a life felony committed before October 1, 1983, by a term of imprisonment for life or for a term of at least 30 years. 2. For a life felony committed on or after October 1, 1983, by a term of imprisonment for life or by a term of imprisonment not exceeding 40 years.

Is 25 years a life sentence? ›

The life sentences consecutively would have a minimum amount of time served for each life sentence. A basic life conviction in the United States carries a minimum of 25 years before parole eligibility. 3 life sentences would mean the person wouldn't be eligible for release until 75 years have passed.

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If someone survives the death penalty, they are usually re-executed, sometimes on the spot. Survival of the death penalty is not common, but has happened: people survive the intense shock of the electric chair or a lethal injection, requiring a second administration of the execution.

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The Bible does not reject capital punishment, but it does provide requirements for it. A person can be killed justly if they have killed unjustly, but they must also be treated with humanity in the process.

Is the death penalty an eye for an eye? ›

If you kill someone else, don't you deserve to die, too – “an eye for an eye”? No. Executing someone because they've taken someone's life is revenge, not justice. An execution – or the threat of one –inflicts terrible physical and psychological cruelty.

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Inmates on death row receive a regular diet, and have access to reading, writing, and legal materials. Depending upon their custody level, some death row inmates may have a radio.

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The death penalty can only be imposed on defendants convicted of capital offenses – such as murder, treason, genocide, or the killing or kidnapping of a Congressman, the President, or a Supreme Court justice. Unlike other punishments, a jury must decide whether to impose the death penalty.

What is the most common death penalty execution? ›

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Utilitarian arguments

Supporters of capital punishment also claim that it has a uniquely potent deterrent effect on potentially violent offenders for whom the threat of imprisonment is not a sufficient restraint.

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Overview. All of the prisoners currently on death row and all of those executed in the modern era of the death penalty were convicted of murder. Historically, the death penalty was widely used for rape, particularly against black defendants with white victims.

What is the most common type of punishment for a crime in the US? ›

Here's a rundown of the most common punishments. Incarceration. Incarceration means time in a local jail or a state or federal prison. Local jails hold pretrial defendants and convicted misdemeanor defendants serving less than one year.

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