Moments after a jury convicted 20-year-old Donte Johnson on all charges in the rape and murder of Sabina Rose O'Donnell, a judge sentenced him to life in prison plus 40 to 80 years, ensuring that Johnson will live out the rest of his life behind bars.
"Frankly, based on these facts, it's better than you deserve," Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson said Wednesday.
In a scathing rebuke to Johnson's attorneys, who had asked that Johnson be given some hope of release in the distant future, Bronson told Johnson he was an extreme danger to the public because he lacked human decency and empathy. He described the June 2010 killing as "a merciless, horrible crime," and said O'Donnell's death was the most savage strangulation he had seen in his 31-year career.
"You extinguished her life," he said. "You deprived her of all the things a 20-year-old woman should enjoy, and you deprived her family."
The verdict, announced after jurors deliberated for about 3½ hours over two days, brought raw, emotional reactions from the packed courtroom. O'Donnell's mother, Rachel, broke down in tears, and friends comforted each other. Johnson shook his head and looked down as his relatives began to cry. One of his siblings fled the courtroom, distraught, and one friend began shaking violently.
Johnson initially declined to speak but then changed his mind and interrupted Bronson during the sentencing, drawing a sharp warning from the judge to wait his turn. When given the cue to talk, Johnson maintained his innocence.
"How can you clearly say I did anything?" Johnson asked. "If I did something, I would take responsibility."
Johnson also mentioned O'Donnell's family and acknowledged their loss.
"I understand where they're coming from and how they feel," he said. "I am truly sorry ... But I didn't have no intention, no interaction with her. None whatsoever."
Bronson said that though he typically can find kernels of ambiguity in a verdict, he had "not one scintilla of doubt" as to Johnson's guilt.
"For you to deny it doesn't surprise me, but it just shows the lack of remorse and contrition you have shown throughout this case," he said.
Johnson's relatives called out to him as he was led from the room in handcuffs, then quickly left.
"It's a sad and crushing day for all of us because no verdict brings Sabina back, and no verdict really brings justice," said Assistant District Attorney Richard Sax, who prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorney Gwenn Cujdik.
O'Donnell was just shy of her 21st birthday when she was murdered June 2, 2010, in a vacant lot behind her home at Fourth Street and Girard Avenue. She was biking home when she crossed paths with Johnson, then 18. Johnson later told police he wanted her bike, but he ended up dragging the petite O'Donnell behind the building and attacking her.
Sax said the case was the strongest he had ever tried; in addition to the confession, DNA linked Johnson to the crime, and a surveillance video placed him near the scene. Johnson's attorney tried to negotiate a plea agreement in 2010, but Johnson rejected it at the last moment.
O'Donnell's death tore a hole through the lives of those who knew and adored her. Before the sentencing, Bronson heard wrenching statements from O'Donnell's relatives that left many in the courtroom in tears, including several police officers.
Mark Rounds, O'Donnell's stepfather, wiped away tears as he asked Bronson to ensure that Johnson never harms another person. Rachel O'Donnell passed Bronson photographs of her daughter, describing her as a joyous presence who made people fall in love with her. She said the murder had robbed her of happiness and, at times, made her long for death.
"She was as good as a person could possibly be," Rachel O'Donnell said. "Every minute that he sits there breathing oxygen is a chance she'll never get. ... Every day that I'm alive, I feel it's one day further away from her, one day further from seeing her face."