ATLANTA — A jury Thursday spared the life of an inmate who faced the death penalty for killing his cellmate at the federal prison in Atlanta, sentencing him instead to life in prison without the possibility of release.
The jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on Brian Richardson’s fate after almost two days of deliberating, leading to an automatic life in prison sentence. The 48-year-old hugged his defense attorneys after the verdict was read.
Richardson was convicted last month of the July 2007 killing of Steven Obara, a 60-year-old who was stabbed and choked before he was strangled to death. The inmate, who was abused as a child, told authorities he targeted his cellmate because Obara was serving a prison sentence on child molestation charges.
Prosecutors and federal defense lawyers have devoted considerable resources to the death penalty case, a rarity in the federal court system. He would have become the first person to be sentenced to death in federal court since June 2011.
Richardson and Obara were put in the same temporary cell at the federal prison in Atlanta as they awaited transfers to other facilities. At the time, Richardson was in the middle of a 65-year sentence for armed robberies while Obara was near the beginning of a 10-year sentence for possessing child pornography and child molestation.
Prosecutors say Richardson lulled Obara into believing they were friends. Then he turned on his cellmate, stabbing him with a fire extinguisher pin fashioned into a weapon before strangling him with a sock.
“It wasn’t enough to kill him and make it clean and quick. He wanted Mr. Obara to suffer,” said Bill McKinnon, an assistant U.S. attorney, at the closing of the six-week trial. “Mr. Obara didn’t have a chance.”
Richardson’s attorney, Brian Mendelsohn, said his client’s violent past was rooted in an abusive childhood that led to his mental illness.
“Brian Richardson is not a stone cold predatory killer,” he said. “Brian Richardson is a mentally ill man who was sorely damaged by the abuse he suffered as a child, the turning points in his life and a history that none of us would want for our children.”
It took the jury about two days to convict Richardson of first-degree murder in Obara’s killing, and jurors have spent the last month hearing evidence and testimony from mental health experts, witnesses, and Richardson’s victims and family members.
During the closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutors argued that a life in prison sentence wouldn’t do justice to Richardson. They cited a violent history that included attacks on guards and inmates, and accusations that he threatened potential witnesses even after Obara’s killing.
“Life in prison means nothing,” McKinnon told jurors.
But Mendelsohn argued that his client was trying to live up to a misguided prison code that calls for inmates to rough up child molesters. He said Richardson still has an opportunity for redemption if a jury shows him mercy, and that Richardson finally has his mental illness under control with new medication.
“The jury saw that in spite of the tragic death of Mr. Obara that Brian’s life still had meaning and value,” Mendelsohn said after the sentencing.