AMITE — A Tangipahoa Parish jury deliberated about three hours Thursday before convicting Michael Varnado of two counts of second-degree murder and one count of manslaughter in a 2007 triple slaying case.
The jury of six men and six women told District Judge Ray Chutz they were unanimous in their decision.
Varnado had been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths.
Varnado was, however, convicted of manslaughter in the Feb. 16, 2007, suffocation death of his estranged girlfriend, Juana Roberts, 20.
The two second-degree murder convictions stemmed from the smoke-inhalation deaths of Roberts’ children, Mykell Roberts, 1, and Demetrios Collier III, 2 months.
The children died when a fire was set at the mobile home after their mother had been suffocated. The crime occurred in a FEMA mobile home in a temporary housing camp on U.S. 190 west of Hammond.
Chutz set sentencing for Oct. 5. A conviction for second-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence in prison.
District Attorney Scott Perrilloux, who had sought the death penalty, said after the verdicts were read that the case was a difficult one.
“We realized from the start that this would be a tough case. Varnado will probably spend the rest of his life in prison so that much was accomplished. I respect the decision of the jury,” Perrilloux said.
Defense attorney Michael Thiel said, “When you go into any death penalty case, anything short of death is a victory.
“However, we don’t see this as a victory … there are no winners in this case and there are still a lot of people who are hurting. Having said that, though, when you save a life, that’s a victory.”
Thiel said he probably will appeal the verdicts and pursue several motions for a mistrial filed at the trial’s conclusion.
Varnado remains under indictment for aggravated kidnapping.
He fled Hammond after the triple slaying and remained in a camper trailer in rural Mississippi for about two weeks before forcing an elderly woman to drive him back to Hammond where he was eventually captured.
Perrilloux said he will meet with his staff and decide whether to pursue the kidnapping charges.
In giving his instructions to the jury, Chutz said the jury could render one of four verdicts: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter or not guilty.
The judge described manslaughter as the “killing of a person in a sudden passion or in a heat of blood.”
On several occasions during the trial, the relationship between Varnado and Roberts was described as troubled and the two had frequent disagreements.
During closing arguments, Thiel, who was assisted in the defense by Steve Lemoine, frequently repeated two phrases, “beyond reasonable doubt,” and “leap of faith.”
In reviewing testimony, Thiel reminded jurors no one placed Varnado at the mobile home on the day of the fire. Repeatedly he told jurors that to believe the evidence introduced by the state required a “leap of faith.”
Thiel stressed if jurors had any reasonable doubt about any of the testimony, they must vote not guilty.
Thiel also questioned the qualifications of two principal witnesses: Brian “Bingo” Jones, who said he saw Varnado ask Tim Oliver to purchase gasoline for him.
Jones testified Varnado had handed Oliver a plastic jug and money for the gasoline. Oliver is now deceased.
Thiel also questioned the testimony of Randall Zachary, who spent about a week in the same jail cell as Varnado and testified Varnado told him he had murdered some victims.
Chief prosecutor Don Wall told the jury the state does not always have ideal witnesses and too often the prosecution is left with having to use witnesses such as Jones and Zachary.
Wall wove a chain of events that ultimately led to the day Varnado suffocated Roberts, had Oliver purchase the gasoline, then set the mobile home on fire with the two children inside.
Wall pointed out that during the fire Varnado was supposedly sleeping in a nearby mobile home and later in an interview with detectives said he did not hear fire trucks, ambulances and the cries of his own mother at the scene.
Wall called Varnado a “coward” who refused to respond to the pleas of victims in a mobile home on fire a few feet from where he was supposedly sleeping.
He also said Varnado fled Hammond the next day and that flight from a crime can be considered as evidence of guilt.