- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

DENVER (AP) - A man convicted of stabbing five people to death during a Denver bar robbery was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday after some of his victims’ relatives lamented a jury’s refusal to send him to death row.

Denver District Judge John Madden IV, who called the massacre one of the most gruesome murders in Colorado history, gave Dexter Lewis, 25, five life sentences and an additional 180 years for other felony counts after jurors failed to unanimously agree on the death penalty.

The case raised doubts about whether capital punishment will ever be imposed again in Colorado, which has executed just one person in nearly half a century and counts three people on its death row. Lewis’ sentencing came within a month of Colorado theater shooter James Holmes getting life in prison for killing 12 people and injuring 70 more at a crowded midnight movie.

Prosecutors said Lewis led a four-men robbery crew at Fero’s Bar and Grill, where he killed the bar’s owner and four customers in October 2012. Two men testified that Lewis stabbed his victims while they were held at gunpoint. The robbery netted $170.

During the six-week trial, defense attorneys carefully detailed Lewis’ abusive childhood. At least one juror found that the details of Lewis’ troubled upbringing called for the mercy of a life sentence over execution.

The jury foreman told reporters Wednesday that the panel wrestled with the punishment, with several jurors wavering before one announced that he or she could never impose death. That took execution off the table, because death sentences must be unanimous in Colorado.

Killed in the robbery were the bar’s owner, Young Suk Fero, 53, and customers Daria M. Pohl, 21, Kellene Fallon, 44, Tereasa Beesley, 45, and Ross Richter, 29. Their relatives remembered them as humble, hardworking people.

“These five people did nothing wrong, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the judge said. “These were murders for no reason whatsoever.”

Before the judge issued his sentence, Beesley’s sister, Shelly Parge, tearfully told him that she suffers nightmares, wondering about the victims’ final moments.

“How many times were they stabbed? Were they screaming? And did they see each other’s eyes, could they see their fear, could they see their pain? Were they waiting for their turn of horror to be next?” she said, sobbing.

Her husband, Todd Parge, told the judge he prays Lewis’ life behind bars is torturous and painful.

That a single juror balked at the possibility of a death sentence “is a sign of the liberalization of America,” he testified. “The message is: You can get away with murder.”

Lewis did not take the stand, and no one testified on his behalf because his attorneys said he plans to appeal.

Lewis’ accomplices, brothers Joseph and Lynell Hill, have pleaded guilty to murder and received lengthy sentences. The fourth man was a confidential informant at the time for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and reported the slayings to authorities. He was not charged in the case.

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