Prosecutors to seek death penalty in Sebring bank murders

Prosecutors plan to seek the “the ultimate punishment” for the man suspected of walking into a SunTrust Bank in Sebring and murdering five women last month.

State Attorney Brian Haas announced Friday that a grand jury had indicted Zephen Xaver for the murders, and he described the decision to seek the death penalty as an “obvious conclusion.”

“It is my duty to apply the facts of each case to the law. In this case, after carefully analyzing the facts as I know them today and applying the law, I was left with the unquestionable conclusion that I must seek the death penalty against the defendant," he said from the lawn of the Highlands County Courthouse.

It was back on January 23 when a gunman, later identified by police as Xaver, shot four bank employees and one customer, shocking the tight-knit Central Florida community.

Haas filed with the courts a document of intent to seek the death penalty. In it, he wrote the aggravating factors were that the shooting was cold, premeditated, and without any moral or legal justification.

He also indicated that Xaver had been accused of previous violent acts. 

Haas acknowledged that there were still a lot of questions about the 21-year-old’s possible motive, but he declined to offer many details about the investigation, adding that more facts would come out as the trial date gets closer.

"I know that there are a lot of questions about the why and the how and all of that," said Haas. "As we go forward in this case, documents will become available that will shed some light onto that."

The state attorney warned the process would be long.

“We have two main concerns. One is to preserve this case as the best prosecutable case as possible.  I do not want to say or do anything that’s going to impact the ability of the trial to occur without any issues,” he explained. “Secondly, the victims’ families are going through an incredibly tough time. When this information is released about the specifics, I want it to be so they have information in advance. If they can choose not to listen to that, then I think that’s their right not to.”

Haas said she spent much of the day Thursday meeting with those families, and there was “no hesitation” about the decision to seek the death penalty.

“If you look at the situation - the horror of what happened, with five victims - to me, that was an obvious conclusion to reach,” he added.

Attorney Anthony Rickman, who is not involved in this case, said he would not be surprised if Xaver's lawyers try to force a change of venue, given the intense and broad media coverage of the mass shooting.

"It is going to be hard to find a jury pool to be fair and impartial," said Rickman.

Because of a 2016 US Supreme Court ruling, that jury will have to be unanimous in believing aggravating factors outweigh any possible mitigating ones. 

Rickman suspects Xaver's attorneys will ask the jury to consider Xaver's age, mental health, and whether he understands the consequences.

"We really don't know much about him," said Rickman. "It is going to be a hard task for whoever his defense attorney is to show twelve people that they shouldn't execute him, knowing what we know now."

Xaver will be arraigned on the murder charges February 25.