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FAMALARO DEATH PENALTY VERDICT

In the End, It Was Photo of Her Body That Haunted Jurors

Courts: They pitied Famalaro, but the picture was a gruesome reminder of what he'd done: 'We could not hold anyone responsible for John's actions but John himself.'

June 19, 1997|DAVAN MAHARAJ and THAO HUA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — After deciding that John J. Famalaro should be executed for killing Denise Huber, the jury of nine women and three men wiped away tears, joined hands and prayed for his soul.

"We prayed that when he does get the death penalty, maybe he would find his own way," said Pat Hamilton, 44, of Buena Park.

Hamilton and the other jurors took five hours to convict Famalaro but agonized longer over how he should be punished. After deliberating for 1 1/2 days, they recommended that he be executed.

In interviews Wednesday, several jurors said they felt sympathy for Famalaro during the six-week trial. They believed the defendant had a traumatic childhood and was tormented by an abusive mother.

But in the end, that was not enough to save him from death. Jurors said they were haunted by a color photo of Huber's nude body that was pinned to a corkboard in the jury room.

That picture, taken when detectives first found her in Arizona, showed Huber lying in a freezer. She had been blindfolded and bludgeoned. Her face and head bore the marks of the 31 blows inflicted with a roofing nail puller.

"The picture . . . is something I'll never erase," said 25-year-old Kristine Gundel of Placentia, the youngest member of the panel. "It was gut-wrenching for me."

Hamilton, who has an 18-year-old daughter, said the photo also troubled her.

"The damage done to her head, it was atrocious," Hamilton said. "You go back to that picture, and you think, 'This is almost not a human being.' "

During the penalty phase of the trial, defense lawyers presented evidence that Famalaro, who had no criminal history, suffered a traumatic childhood.

His mother, Anne Famalaro, 71, choked a girlfriend of her older son, pushed her own mother down a flight of stairs and routinely eavesdropped on her sons to try to catch them masturbating, defense attorneys said.

The lawyers also suggested that Famalaro was sexually abused by his older brother, who denied that allegation.

Jurors said they felt sympathy for Famalaro after hearing about his abuse and his overbearing mother.

Anna Brown, a 35-year-old juror, said she was "frightened" by Anne Famalaro's testimony, including her admission on the witness stand that she had followed her sons on dates.

But jurors said the methodical manner in which Famalaro killed Huber--and the viciousness of the crime--prevailed.

"We could not hold anyone responsible for John's actions but John himself," Brown said.

The jury forewoman, Bonnie Snethen, said the panel reached a decision on the first vote, taken after a lunch break Wednesday.

'It was death . . . all the way," said Snethen, a Tustin resident who said she has a 26-year-old daughter.

"We felt sorry for him. We felt sorry for his family," she said. "This is not anything to be happy about."

As jurors emerged from the courtroom, many brushed away tears, saying that the deliberations were exhausting and stressful. A few said they would not want to serve in another capital trial.

Brown described to reporters how she had sought "God's guidance" through prayers about the death penalty decision.

"I felt God was leading us in this direction," Brown said.

Outside the courtroom, she was embraced by Dennis Huber, the victim's father, who thanked her for voting for the death penalty.

"God bless you," he said.

Brown hugged him, then said: "Glad to help."

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