- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) - Relatives and friends of a man convicted of murdering two former Auburn University football players and another man at a party pleaded with jurors Wednesday to spare him from the death penalty.

Shahara Leonard, 22, mopped at tears as she told jurors that her brother Desmonte Leonard protected her during a difficult childhood that included beatings from their mother with switches tied together by rubber bands.

“He has kids that need him. He has a family that stands behind him,” Leonard said as her voice shook. She said her brother is not how he has been depicted in media reports.

“If you had even five minutes to talk to him, you wouldn’t label him as a monster,” she said.

Jurors began hearing testimony as they prepared to make a recommendation on whether the 24-year-old should be sentenced to life in prison without parole or be executed. The judge will make the final decision.

The jury on Tuesday found Leonard guilty of capital murder of two one-time Auburn football players, Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips, as well as DeMario Pitts of Opelika. The panel rejected claims that Leonard fired a handgun in self-defense because he feared his life was in danger when a fight broke out at the off-campus party in June 2012.

Sentencing witnesses repeated defense arguments that Leonard might have been particularly fearful for his life after being shot in the abdomen in 2008.

Shahara Leonard said that after that shooting, her brother had trouble with suspenseful situations. He couldn’t even go to the county fair, she said, because he couldn’t handle the noise and sounds of balloons popping.

The mothers of both of Leonard’s two daughters also pleaded for his life for the sake of their children, ages 4 and 2.

Fredria Johnson said she has been dating Leonard for seven years and that they have the 4-year-old. She said that Leonard supported her and was the one that encouraged her to finish high school when she wanted to drop out.

“Without him, I have nothing,” Johnson said.

Defense lawyers called multiple witnesses who described Leonard as kind and loving and said they were shocked to find out he was accused in the shooting. Several spoke directly to the victims’ families from the stand, saying they know Leonard regrets what happened.

“I beg your mercy, your compassion and your understanding,” said cousin Damian Laster.

Prosecutors said Leonard intentionally killed the three men after a fight broke out between Leonard’s friends and other partygoers.

They argued to jurors that Leonard wasn’t involved in the fight and that his life was never in danger.

Lee County District Attorney Robert Treese told jurors that it was a “miracle” that more people weren’t killed or injured when Leonard opened fire at the crowded party. Prosecutors noted in closing arguments that Leonard fired at least nine shots and that all three victims were shot twice.

Treese said Leonard’s crime was cruel and heinous and created the risk of death to many people, factors which would merit a death sentence.

“We ask you to vote your conscience based on the evidence you’ve seen,” Treese told jurors.

The sentencing phase of the trial continues Thursday morning.

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