OPELIKA, Ala. --- A former Army soldier who claimed to be mentally disturbed from his deployment in Iraq was convicted of capital murder Thursday in the abduction and shooting death of an Auburn University student from Georgia.
Jurors deliberated about six-and-a-half hours over two days before convicting Courtney Lockhart, 26, of rural Smith Station, in the killing of 18-year-old freshman Lauren Burk of Marietta, Ga.
Wearing a black suit, Lockhart sat calmly with his lawyers and showed no emotion when Circuit Judge Jacob Walker read the verdict. Burk's family members, mostly sitting behind the prosecution table, began hugging each other and patting each other on the back.
Jurors then voted 12-0 after deliberating for another hour to recommend sentencing him to life in prison without parole, rather than death by injection. The judge is not bound by the jury's recommendation. He tentatively set sentencing for Jan. 28.
But District Attorney Nick Abbett, who is retiring in January, said it might be hard for the judge to overturn an unanimous recommendation for life.
"That was a pretty strong statement from the jury," Abbett said.
Burk's sister, Jaklyn Semones of Alpharetta, Ga., said she felt fine with the life in prison without parole recommendation.
"I'm just happy this has come to an end. Justice was done," Semones said.
Burk's father, Jim Burk, thanked police, prosecutors and the jury for the verdict.
"We still have some questions as to why this happened, but hopefully we can find answers in the future. We continue to love and pray for Lauren," he said.
Burk was abducted on the night of March 4, 2008, as she got into her car in a campus parking lot after visiting her boyfriend. According to statements given by Lockhart, he pulled a gun on the screaming student, trying to rob her, and forced her into her car as he drove it off.
During the sentencing, jurors heard emotional testimony from Lockhart's mother and father, who expressed sorrow for the grief Lockhart caused.
His mother, Catherine Lockhart Williams, tearfully apologized to Burk's mother, who was sitting in the front row of the gallery.
"I just want to say to you and your whole family that I am sorry. I feel your pain because I am a mother, too. If I could I would get up and hug you but they probably wouldn't let me do that," said Williams.
Lockhart's father, Curtis James, said he broke off his relationship with Williams when Lockhart was a small boy and never got to know his son -- never took him fishing, rarely called him on the telephone.
His voice breaking, James said he blames himself partly for what happened to Burk.
"I would give my life right now to change this whole situation, if I could bring back Miss Burk," James said.
He said he had a brief chance to speak to his son for the first time in years as he was being brought into court Thursday, but Lockhart wasn't interested in a conversation.
"I asked him if he was OK and he said, 'Where were you?'"