Rejecting the death wish of a convicted rapist/murderer, a Montgomery County Court judge concluded yesterday that life in prison was the appropriate penalty for Mark Patrick O'Donnell.
"For some people, the death penalty may be too easy," said Judge William J. Furber.
Speaking to a tense courtroom filled with relatives on both sides, Furber called O'Donnell's crimes - the sexual assault and strangulation of Ebony Nicole Dorsey, his girlfriend's 14-year-old daughter - "horrific."
"In my mind, it doesn't get much worse," Furber said.
The judge issued his decision after hearing testimony in the death-penalty phase of O'Donnell's nonjury trial.
"If I could trade my life for hers, I would gladly do it," said O'Donnell, 48, of Plymouth Township. "I'm going to find it hard to look at myself in the mirror . . . no matter what Jesus says about forgiving me."
Earlier yesterday, the judge convicted O'Donnell of first-degree murder, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, tampering with evidence, and abusing a corpse.
Police found the teen's body on Dec. 10 jammed into a 20-gallon storage bin that O'Donnell had buried under leaves outside a relative's Blue Bell residence.
The killing occurred after O'Donnell returned to his home on Dec. 7, having spent the night doing drugs with the teen's mother, Danielle Cattie, 34, of Whitpain Township. The victim had been babysitting O'Donnell's 4-year-old daughter.
Defense attorney Thomas C. Egan III said he was relieved that the judge had spared his client's life and had considered the positive testimony of more than half a dozen relatives.
They said O'Donnell, who received an honorable discharge after six years in the Air Force, held a full-time factory job while attending nursing school.
"I really don't think my nephew was in his right mind," said Howard Johnson, 70, of Ambler. "I'm not excusing his crack use."
O'Donnell's mother, Hilda Mills, 75, said she was "still in shock" over the crimes.
"I don't believe that my son did this deliberately," she said.
Before adjourning, the judge said he felt compelled to address Evan Dorsey, the victim's father. He had testified that he had an active role in his daughter's life, even though she lived with Cattie, and that the pain of his loss was excruciating.
Cattie is awaiting sentencing on drug and child-endangerment charges stemming from the murder case.
Furber said it was clear that the victim was "very pretty, industrious, smart, and principled," and he expressed regret he had not known her.
"All of those positive, honorable traits are attributable to you," the judge told Dorsey. "You should be forever proud."
Outside the courtroom, members of O'Donnell's family expressed their condolences to Dorsey and exchanged handshakes.
"We're all so sorry," said O'Donnell's mother.
First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said testimony about O'Donnell's good deeds was inconsistent with his 1985 attempted-murder conviction in California. Steele said those court records would be introduced at O'Donnell's formal sentencing later.
O'Donnell is also a "possible suspect" in the May 2006 triple slaying of a Philadelphia family at their Port Richmond home, where O'Donnell had been assigned as a private-duty nurse.
The fact that O'Donnell will have to spend the rest of his life in prison as a child sex offender suggests that the judge was correct: "This may be worse" than death, Steele said.