Antonio Gaskins, convicted of killing two people in a Suitland pool hall, was spared the death penalty yesterday by a jury that instead instructed a judge to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Gaskins, 23, was found guilty Sept. 20 of killing two bystanders when he opened fire with a pistol on a third man in Players Billiard Parlor, in what police said was a drug-related dispute.
After a three-day sentencing hearing that ended yesterday in Prince George's Circuit Court, the same jurors who convicted Gaskins rejected the state's request for the death penalty. On its verdict sheet, the jury said at least some of its members believed Gaskins's crimes resulted from emotional instability caused by psychological and physical abuse he suffered as a child.
After deliberating for about four hours, the jury instructed Judge Audrey E. Melbourne to sentence him to life without the possibility of parole for each of two first-degree murder convictions.
Melbourne, who is required by law to follow the jury's instructions, must decide for herself what additional sentences to impose on Gaskins for two other convictions, both on weapon charges. Each of those offenses is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. She scheduled sentencing for Monday.
The jury's decision to spare Gaskins the death penalty left his attorney, Elvira White, choked with emotion. "We're absolutely delighted," she said moments after the hearing ended, adding that she considered a sentence of life without the possibility of parole "absolutely a victory."
"He's alive," she said.
Prosecutor Jeffrey Harding also said he was happy with the jury's decision, although he had told the panel that Gaskins deserved to die in Maryland's gas chamber. "I'm very pleased," he said, "because we know Mr. Gaskins will never set foot free on the streets of this state again."
Gaskins was one of three gunmen who opened fire with pistols and a sawed-off shotgun in the pool hall the night of Feb. 20. Their intended victim was wearing a protective vest and escaped unharmed, police said.
However, the jury found last month, bullets from the handgun Gaskins fired struck and killed two bystanders. Richard Steeley, 66, a retiree who liked to drink coffee in the pool hall, was shot in the head. Harold Washington, 43, who had stopped in the pool hall to use the bathroom, was shot in the chest. Both men lived in Washington.
Gaskins's mother, Paulette Gaskins Collins, testified that when Gaskins was a child, his father sometimes withheld food from him, threatened to shoot him and once tried to drown him. White argued that her client was left emotionally unstable and not fully responsible for his acts last Feb. 20.