Prosecutors: Death Sentence Was Right Decision

By: Cayle Thompson Email
By: Cayle Thompson Email

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An emotional end to the trial of a man accused of kidnapping, raping and killing an Ark City teenager.

Jurors in Winfield unanimously recommended Tuesday that Justin Thurber, 25, be sentenced to death for the 2007 murder of 19-year-old Jodi Sanderholm.

Thurber's parents and sister cried a few rows behind him as the verdict was read. Jurors said not even his family's pleas for mercy could outweigh the atrocity of Jodi's death.

For the Sanderholms, Tuesday's verdict is the end to a painful two-year fight for justice. Jodi's parents and prosecutors said the jury made the right decision.

"He truly got the right punishment for what he did to Jodi," said Cindy Sanderholm. "He really, truly did."

"I think it's a very just decision," said Brian Sanderholm. "That's what the system is about. That's why the rules are there... Maybe it will make others think twice, which he [Thurber] didn't do."

Jennifer Sanderholm said if ever a crime deserved the death penalty, her sister's murder was one of them. When asked if she might ever be able to forgive Thurber for his actions, she said it would be hard.

"If I ever forgive him... it's going to be for me," Jennifer said. "So that I don't have any hatred in my heart."

Prosecutors say despite what appeared to be overwhelming evidence against Thurber, the case was not easily won. Thurber's DNA was found on one strand of hair in Sanderholm's submerged car. Officials also found skin cells belonging to Thurber under Sanderholm's fingernails. Prosecutors say if it was not for the DNA, the case would have been based largely on circumstantial evidence.

"I pray I never have to go through this again," said Cowley County Attorney Chris Smith.

Smith and Assistant Attorney General Vic Braden denied an eleventh hour attempt on Thurber's part to avoid the death penalty. Two years after the crime, and only two weeks before trial, Thurber told prosecutors he would plead guilty if the death penalty was taken off the table.

Prosecutors said no, consulting first with the Sanderholms, who agreed Thurber's fate should be left in the hands of a jury.

"This was a very trying case," Smith said. "It has affected so many more people than have been in this courthouse."

Prosecutors and the Sanderholms understand the Thurbers are also affected by this tragedy. But Smith says that is the fault of their son, who dragged them into the case when he killed Jodi.

Neither defense attorneys or Thurber's parents wished to speak with reporters after Tuesday's verdict.

Jurors also left the courthouse quickly. The courtroom bailiff says they did not wish to speak about the case even with prosecutors.

Thurber will return to court on March 20th for his formal sentencing. In Kansas, a jury's verdict for death is only a recommendation. A judge can show mercy and officially hand down a life sentence without parole. However, no Kansas judge has ever gone against the wishes of a jury when imposing a death sentence.

As in all capital murder cases, Thurber's conviction is subject to an automatic review by the Kansas Supreme Court. There are less than one dozen capital murder defendants awaiting lethal injection Kansas. The state has not carried out an execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1994.

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Tuesday, Feb. 17 - 10:15pm

A Cowley County jury has sentenced Justin Thurber to the death penalty for the murder of Jodi Sanderholm. The Ark City teenager was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2007.

Thurber showed no emotion as the penalty was announced.

Thurber will be sentenced March 20th.

Look for complete reports today on KAKE News at 4:00, 5:00 and 6:00.

  • Statement From AG Steve Six

    “The jury’s verdict brings justice to the community, but it is still a sad day because it does not bring Jodi back. Jodi had a promising future and a whole life ahead of her that will not be realized. My family will continue to pray for the Sanderholm family and I ask all Kansans to do the same.

    “I am pleased with the cooperation and hard work put into this case by many law enforcement agencies at the state and local level. This was a team effort focused on justice for Jodi Sanderholm and her family.”

    Tuesday, Feb. 17 - 8:45am

    Jurors return to the Cowley County Courthouse in Winfield this morning. After little less than three hours of deliberations Monday afternoon, several reportedly asked Judge James Pringle for a chance "to sleep on their decision."

    Jurors are now in the penalty phase of Justin Thurber's capital murder trial. Having found him guilty in the 2007 kidnapping, rape and murder of Jodi Sanderholm last week, the same jury is now tasked with deciding whether Thurber deserves to die for the crime.

    Jurors much reach a unanimous vote for death if that is to be Thurber's sentence. If only one juror dissents, Thurber will automatically receive life in prison without the possibility for parole.

    On Monday, prosecutors reminded jurors of the terror Jodi must have endured in the hours leading up to her death. They also recounted the pain she must have endured as Thurber savagely assaulted and strangled her.

    Defense attorneys, presenting their first testimony and evidence in the trial, spent Monday morning asking jurors to spare Thurber's life. Thurber's mother, father and sister pleaded for mercy. A doctor said Thurber was a troubled man, suffering from bipolar disorder and a below-average IQ.

    Defense attorneys also told jurors Thurber tried to confess to the crime in January of this year, but prosecutors denied a deal that would have spared his life. Assistant Attorney General Vic Braden told jurors on Monday the decision to go ahead with trial was based on the belief only a jury should be allowed to decide Thurber's fate.

    As Thurber left court on Monday, the Sanderholms say they heard him faintly apologize as passed in front of them. Jodi Sanderholm's older sister, Jennifer, told KAKE News she is skeptical of Thurber's sincerity, and that it was too little, too late.

    Stay with KAKE News and KAKE.com for updates throughout the day. KAKE.com will attempt to carry the verdict live when jurors announce they've reached a final decision.


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