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2008: Jury spares Burnett's life in Brooks slaying

Originally published May 29, 2008:

On Wednesday afternoon, Terri Brooks walked up to the man whose son had been convicted of killing her daughter. "I don't know what to say," she re-membered telling Will Burnett, the stepfather who raised Ted Burnett. "But my thoughts are with you."

"It was a horrible thing," she remembered Will Burnett saying.

They talked briefly as a jury deliberated whether Ted Burnett should spend his life in prison or die by lethal injection for strangling 14-year-old Chelsea Brooks.

Little more than two hours later, jurors announced they could not reach a unanimous verdict on the death penalty. That means Ted Burnett will instead spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"You know they're hurting, too, in a different way," Terri Brooks said of the Burnett family. "They have a tragedy, too."

Jurors would not talk publicly about their verdict after they found the 51-year-old Burnett guilty of capital murder on Friday. But jurors told lawyers that their hearts, too, went out to the Burnett family.

"We are relieved they didn't hand down a death sentence, and we know it was a verdict based on his family, even though they didn't take the stand," said Gary Owens, one of Burnett's court-appointed lawyers.

Will Burnett and his wife, Ted's mother, Norma, had traveled from Topeka to attend the trial. But they didn't return for the first day of the sentencing phase Tuesday. They came back to Sedgwick County District Court on Wednesday with their youngest son, Tony, and lawyers expected them to tes-tify and ask the jury to spare Ted's life.

Before the start of court, however, Ted Burnett met with his parents, his brother and lawyers in the law library.

"They reached a decision due to the emotion of the case not to testify," lawyer Mark Manna said.

Terri Brooks and Chelsea's father, Darren, said after the jury's decision was announced that they had made peace with the families of two of the men ac-cused of killing their pregnant daughter.

Everett Gentry, then 17, pleaded guilty to capital murder the month after Chelsea's death in 2006. His testimony, arranged through a plea bargain, was the key evidence tying Burnett to the crime.

Gentry said he arranged with his best friend, Elgin Ray Robinson Jr., the fa-ther of Chelsea's unborn child, to kill her. Gentry said Robinson wanted to avoid possible rape charges, because he was 18 and Chelsea 13 when she be-came pregnant. Sex with someone under age 14 in Kansas is considered rape, even if it is consensual.

Burnett strangled Chelsea, Gentry said, after he'd driven them to a secluded field in Butler County, where they buried the girl face down in a shallow grave. Before killing her, Gentry said, he'd talked to Chelsea about what she would name her child. "Alexa," he remembered her saying.

Terri and Darren Brooks said the Gentry and Burnett families suffered through this trial, too.

"They're very upstanding people to us, and we just want people to think about them, too," said Darren Brooks. "The Gentry family has spoken to us many times. They held us up in prayer. The Burnett family don't agree with the road Ted took in life."

Wednesday's decision was almost anticlimactic, prosecutors said, after Fri-day's guilty verdict.

"But it wasn't surprising," said Marc Bennett, chief district attorney.

Bennett said the death penalty remains in the hands of the jury, and in this case they couldn't agree.

"Under the law, they had to answer the question on what is the appropriate sentence, and they did," added Kevin O'Connor, deputy district attorney.

The decision marked the third time in eight years a Sedgwick County jury handed down a life sentence in a capital murder case.

"This is a sufficiently severe penalty for the terrible murder of Chelsea Brooks and it also protects the public," said Don Anderson, who attended the trial as a representative of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Judge Ben Burgess scheduled Burnett's sentencing for June 25.

"We all got life sentences, if you want to think about it that way," said An-drea Brooks, 19, Chelsea's sister. "I have to spend the rest of my life and my mom has to spend the rest of her life without Chelsea, and Alexa, and we never get to see them ever again."

In that way, they have something else in common with the Burnett family.

"They have to know for the rest of their lives that their son is behind bars and will never get out," Andrea Brooks said. "And they will know that their son killed an innocent girl."