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Desmonte Leonard sentenced to life without parole in Auburn triple slaying

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MONTGOMERY, Alabama — A judge on Tuesday sentenced a 25-year-old man to life in prison without parole for killing two former Auburn University football players and another man during an argument at an off-campus party.

Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob Walker on Tuesday upheld the jury's recommendation of life in prison without parole for Desmonte Leonard. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty.

A jury convicted Leonard of capital murder for the deaths of former Auburn football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips along with DeMario Pitts. Evidence showed that Leonard pulled a .40-caliber handgun and opened fire when an argument escalated to a fistfight during the 2012 party. Leonard never denied firing the fatal shots, but claimed he was acting in self-defense. One trial witness testified that the argument began over stares exchanged across a room, while others said the fight was over a woman.

Shackled and wearing a white jail uniform, Leonard told Walker on Tuesday that he was sorry for what happened.

"I apologize from the bottom of my heart," Leonard said. Leonard said he hoped that one day the victims' family members "could find it in their heart" to forgive him.

The family members of two of the victims spoke in court before Walker handed down Leonard's sentence.

Pitt's mother said her son had two children who are now without a father. Carlton Christian, the cousin of Ed Christian, testified that family members will never get to see the young man, or what his life would have been, because of Leonard. He recalled a 2011 text message in which he assured his cousin that he had time to figure out a career path after a back injury ended his football dreams.

"Never did I think he wouldn't have an opportunity to live out his life," Christian testified in court.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty, arguing in court filings that Leonard could have killed even more people when he opened fire outside the crowded party.

In capital cases, trial jurors have two options: recommending the death penalty or life in prison without parole. A judge makes the final decision. Walker said he generally will uphold a jury's recommendation unless there was significant information presented to him that jurors didn't get to hear.

Walker also sentenced Leonard to 20 years for his conviction on assault and to life in prison for attempted murder.

Defense lawyer Susan James said she was thankful and relieved with the sentence, but she still disagreed with the verdict.

"With all due respect to the jury, I think they got it wrong," James said.

Lee County District Attorney Robert Treese said he was glad for the victims' families that the trial was concluded.

"As all of us, I had much preferred this never had happened," Treese said.

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