Dressed in black, Beth Branley took the witness stand in a Gretna courtroom Thursday, two days shy of the second anniversary of the night she awoke to find her husband and son fatally shot in the living room of the family’s Metairie home.
As family and friends who packed the prosecution’s side of the courtroom sobbed, Branley described the horror of “not being able to wake my husband and having my son die in my arms” on the night of April 22, 2015.
She talked of the pain of initially coming under suspicion herself by investigators probing the killing of David and Nicholas Pence, and then being slandered on social media in the hours that followed.
Then there was the lengthy legal process, which culminated in October with a unanimous guilty verdict on two second-degree murder charges against Dexter Allen, 19, a conviction that could send him to prison for life with no chance for parole.
"I wasn’t sure we would ever make it to this day … this day when I have my say,” Branley said, reading a statement before Judge Raymond Steib of 24th Judicial District Court and Allen himself, who sat across the courtroom in the jury box wearing an orange jumpsuit.
She spoke of the road trips she and her husband took and a planned trip for their 30-year anniversary that will never be. She described the good-natured ribbing she got from him about the Hallmark Channel movies she’d watch on Sundays, even when the Saints were playing on TV.
Branley said the killings — David was shot in the face, torso and leg while he slept in his recliner and Nicholas in the head as he knelt on the floor — had imposed their own kind of life sentence on her, with no chance for reprieve.
"I respectfully request the court impose the same sentence on the convicted murderer,” she said.
Even after a year of living and breathing the case, a prosecutor said in court Monday, she w…
That’s the decision Steib will have to make Friday, when he will hand down a sentence that will either put Allen away for life or make him eligible for parole at some point after 35 years in prison.
Allen would have automatically gotten two life sentences without a chance for parole had he not been 17 when he committed the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such automatic life sentences for juveniles violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and Steib will have to consider whether any mitigating factors in Allen’s past suggest he could be reformed and therefore should be allowed a chance for eventual parole.
As he has in previous court filings and hearings, defense attorney Jerome Matthews argued Thursday that the state has not allotted him the time or the money to properly investigate Allen’s past and find such factors.
Steib has disagreed, saying the high court’s ruling doesn’t guarantee resources for a year-long probe, a decision that was upheld once on appeal.
Matthews, who on Wednesday asked the state Supreme Court to postpone the hearing, managed to get the sentencing delayed a day by declining to waive a 24-hour waiting period after Allen was denied a request for a new trial. Steib then ruled that the hearing would go on as scheduled Friday.
Prosecutors argued that Allen deserves life without the chance of parole because the killings were so needless, given that Allen was there only to steal.
“The word ‘unnecessary’ does not do it justice,” Assistant District Attorney Seth Shute said.
Elizabeth Pence and her husband David uncorked a bottle of wine when she got home to Metairi…
Steib also heard a recording of Branley’s frantic 911 call, which also was played during the trial, in which she begged her son not to close his eyes just before he died.
Tara Pence, Branley’s daughter, testified that she slept only about four hours a night for eight months after she lost her father and brother. She also had to undergo therapy.
She lamented that her dad "won’t be there to walk me down the aisle or dance with me at my wedding” or even watch her graduate with a master's degree in coming days.
All of it, she said, "because a monster thought a purse and iPhone were worth more than their lives.”
On two occasions during the testimony, Allen began muttering inaudibly and had to be spoken to by Matthews and a bailiff.
Allen's mother, Serena Jones Allen, was the only defense witness to take the stand. She testified that she loves her son and didn’t believe he committed the crime. She said Allen had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and an absentee father and that he moved around a lot after Hurricane Katrina.
In his closing argument, Matthews said he was not able to properly represent his client without adequate funding for an investigation into Allen's past. He pointed out he was unable to pay any investigators or put any medical experts on the stand, leaving only Allen’s mother to speak for him.
"There’s no way a higher court is going to look at what I did today and say, 'Yes, Mr. Matthews did an effective job as counsel,' ” he said.