Circuit Judge Lisa Dodson showed no mercy as she sentenced Alberto Garcia to death for the capital murder of Gulfport 5-year-old Ja’Naya Thompson.
Referring to the Bible, Dodson told him, “‘Mercy is shown to those who show mercy.’ You showed no mercy.”
Dodson deliberated less than two hours before giving her verdict Wednesday, the third day of Garcia’s sentencing trial.
“It was brutal, cold and torturous,” Dodson said of Ja’Naya’s killing.
Garcia, 31, had faced either life without parole or the death penalty. He waived his right to a jury sentencing and opted to have Dodson sentence him after he pleaded guilty Jan. 18 in Harrison County Circuit Court. The underlying crime to the hanging that suffocated her was sexual battery.
When Dodson asked Garcia if he had anything to say before he was sentenced, he replied, “No, ma’am,” in a voice quieter than in his plea hearing had been last week, when he had calmly and matter-of-factly told the judge about the night he assaulted and killed Ja’Naya.
The family’s statement
After the sentencing, Ja’Naya’s family sent a statement to the media. It was written by a grandparent.
“First of all, I want to thank God,” the family said. The family also thanked friends and family members, as well as District Attorney Joel Smith and his staff, including Assistant District Attorney Crosby Parker, and Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania and his staff. They also expressed gratitude to “everyone for prayers and support through all of our hard times.”
“Now my granddaughter can rest in peace and we can have closure,” the statement said.
Smith spoke to reporters after he met with the family.
“A lot of times when we get to the end of a jury trial and you receive a guilty verdict against the defendant there is some sense of joy,” he said. “But today there is no joy, because a child was lost. Today is a day where we can no longer have to talk about this defendant, Alberto Garcia. And we can begin the healing process for Ja’Naya Thompson’s family.”
“And hopefully, she can begin to rest in peace.”
Family member Violet Willis told the Sun Herald, “Thank God that justice has been served. Now we all can be at peace and try to live our lives. It’s been real tough on us.” Prayers and the community’s support have helped, she said. “These couple of days have been kind of hard. Thank God we made it.”
Many of Ja’Naya’s family and friends wept quietly during the sentencing. Ja’Naya’s mother, in tears, was escorted from the courtroom as Dodson recounted the facts of the case and Garcia’s lack of remorse. About one-third of the crowd was Gulfport police officials and investigators.
No one showed up at court to support Garcia.
Papania said Garcia is society’s worst nightmare.
“He is truly repugnant in character and actions,” the chief said. “He is what we as a society fear and detest — pure evil.”
The girl was sexually assaulted and hanged in an unoccupied mobile home not far from her home at The Palms apartments off Klein and Three Rivers roads.
She had been reported missing by her mother about 7:40 p.m. July 16, 2014, from just outside the sliding-glass door of their apartment. A rescue team found her, hanged by two socks, in a trailer off nearby Whitney Drive about 8:15 a.m. the next day. A trail and makeshift bridge lead from The Palms into woods behind Whitney Drive.
Alive when hanged
Dodson said state Medical Examiner Mark LeVaughn testified a period of time passed between two assaults on the child. She was tied to a couch in the roach-infested trailer and her head was pushed into the cushion of a chair, Dodson said. LeVaughn said she would have experienced significant pain and terror.
Marks on her face indicate she scratched herself trying to loosen the socks Garcia had tied around her neck, he said.
Ja’Naya, who was 4 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 50 pounds, was unable to get away from Garcia, a large man, Dodson said.
Dodson disagreed with the defense attorneys’ arguments that Garcia committed the acts because he suffers from an anxiety disorder, was under stress and came from a bad home environment. A psychiatric examination requested by Garcia’s attorneys showed he had a “horrible” mother and had received psychiatric treatment as a child when he showed violent tendencies, Dodson said.
Garcia could have received treatment for his anxiety as an adult, Dodson said.
Dodson also said Garcia has “an obsession with sex.”
‘He never told the whole story’
Evidence showed Garcia’s Xbox was used to download information on child sex, child abduction, and child bindings and torture a few days before Ja’Naya disappeared. He had binoculars near his bedroom window, which overlooked a playground at The Palms, where he also lived.
But Dodson said she found Garcia’s anxiety disorder and childhood had nothing to do with his actions.
She said she considered the facts of the case, arguments and evidence and found although Garcia admitted he sexually assaulted and hanged the girl, he gave conflicting statements and tried to blame what happened on his neighbor Julian “Casper” Gray. The DA’s office included information about to the grand jury that reviewed the capital murder case, but Gray was not indicted, Smith said.
Dodson said she also considered Ja’Naya’s age and Garcia’s conflicting statements.
“He never told the whole story” and he expressed no remorse, she said.
Ja’Naya’s disappearance and the announcement of her death shocked the community. Even people who didn’t know her had helped search for her. Many attended the visitation before her funeral.
She was ‘everybody’s child’
After Ja’Naya’s death, Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes had referred to her as “everybody’s child.”
“I believe Judge Dodson made the right ruling,” Hewes said Wednesday. “But this will never be over for Ja’Naya’s family. It’s the worst thing most of us have ever seen. It hurt the entire community.”
A death sentence in Mississippi carries with it an automatic appeal.
Before Dodson had deputies take Garcia out of the courtroom, she told him, “I’m sure I will be seeing you in court again, Mr. Garcia,” referring to the appeal.
Smith, who prosecuted the case with Parker, said he is proud of the efforts of the Gulfport Police Department to bring Garcia to justice.
“But what stands out the most to me is the strength and grace of the victim’s family,” Smith said. “I am so appreciative of the support and love they have shown to all of us throughout the process. I have no doubt Ja’Naya is smiling down from heaven on each of them today.”
Joining death row
With Garcia’s sentencing, there are now 48 people on death row in Mississippi. The last person sentenced to death in the state was Rahim Ambrose in 2015 in the 2013 killing of Robert Trosclair of Pass Christian.
The last person executed in the state was Gary Carl Simmons Jr., on June 20, 2012. He had been sentenced in the death of Jeffrey Wolfe.
On death row
After Wednesday’s sentencing of Alberto Garcia, there are 48 inmates on Mississippi’s death row. Of those, 13 were convicted of capital murders in South Mississippi counties. Those 13 are listed here by date of sentencing:
Jan. 13, 1976: Richard Gerald Jordan kidnapped and shot Edwina Marter, 32, of Gulfport in Harrison County. At 70, he’s the state’s oldest and longest-serving inmate on death row.
Nov. 26, 1981: James Billiot used an 8-pound sledgehammer to beat to death his mother, stepfather and 14-year-old stepsister in Hancock County.
March 4, 1987: Roger Eric Thorson kidnapped and shot his former girlfriend, Gloria Jean McKinney, 29, in Harrison County.
Sept. 8, 1990: Alan Dale Walker kidnapped, raped and drowned Konya Rebecca Edwards, 19, of Long Beach at Crystal Lake in Harrison County. He was prosecuted in Warren County.
May 5, 1996: Blayden Grayson stabbed Minnie Smith, 78, during a burglary in George County.
Nov. 3, 2001: Thong Le and an alleged accomplice robbed Minh Heiu Thi Huynh, 46, of $1,300 and strangled her and her daughters, Thuy, 11, and Than, 15, in Jackson County.
Aug. 27, 2004: Joseph Bishop Goff mutilated and set afire Brandy Stewart Yates, 29, of Irvington, Alabama, in a hotel room in George County.
June 21, 2007: Jason Lee Keller shot and robbed Biloxi store clerk Hat Nguyen, 41, in Harrison County.
Aug. 26, 2008: Timothy Robert Ronk stabbed and robbed Michelle Craite, 37, and set her Harrison County home on fire.
Dec. 5, 2008: Leslie Galloway beat, raped, cut, set afire and ran over Shakeylia Anderson, 17, in Harrison County.
Aug. 23, 2013: Timothy Nelson Evans robbed and strangled his landlady, Wenda Holling, 70, in Kiln in Hancock County.
June 19, 2015: Rahim Ambrose, beat, stabbed and strangled Robert Trosclair, 31, in Pass Christian in Harrison County.
Jan. 25, 2017: Alberto Julio Garcia raped and hanged Ja’Naya Thompson, 5, in Gulfport in Harrison County.
Note: Fred Sanford Spicer, who was sentenced to death in 2001 in George County, was resentenced in 2012 and given life without parole.
Compiled from Sun Herald archives and MDOC records