PENSACOLA, Florida – Jury selection began on Monday, US time, in the trial of a karate instructor charged with leading a group of armed men dressed as ninjas in robbing the home of a wealthy couple and killing the pair as their nine special-needs children cowered or slept nearby.
Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 36, could get the death penalty if convicted of organizing the break-in at Byrd and Melanie Billings’ home in a rural area near Pensacola on the night of July 9, 2009.
Gonzalez wore arm and leg chains as he was brought into the court Monday morning. His defence attorneys asked that their desks be moved so that the roughly 200 potential jurors would not see the chains. Gonzalez has also been charged with attacking another inmate in jail.
Prosecutor Bill Eddins said he expects jury selection to take about two days.
Two of Gonzalez’s co-defendants are scheduled to testify against him, Eddins said. But he said none of the young children who were in the home the night of the slayings are expected to testify about what they saw that night.
Prosecutors say the couple was killed during a botched attempt to steal a cash-filled safe. Their adopted children were not physically harmed in the attack.
Seven co-defendants have been charged with first-degree murder. Several could testify against Gonzalez and name him as the man who fatally shot Byrd Billings, who owned a company that financed used-car purchases, and his wife.
The Billingses were fatally shot in their bedroom, where there were no video cameras. A safe that was taken from the family’s home contained nothing of value, but a second safe that wasn’t stolen had $164,000 in cash, court records show.
According to autopsy reports, Melanie Billings, 43, was shot twice in her chest, and in the face and head. Byrd Billings, 66, was shot multiple times in the head and legs.
The nine children in the home, all between the ages of 4 and 11 at the time of break-in, have varying special needs ranging from Down syndrome to fetal alcohol syndrome and autism.
The silent surveillance video footage from the children’s bedrooms shows two of children remaining still during the break-in. A third child is in her bedroom alone when the attackers arrive, and their van can be seen through her window. The girl walks to the window and appears to watch the men enter. The girl then gets back in the bed and pulls the covers around her. She gets up a second time before returning to bed and putting her head on the pillow as the tape ends.
Previously released records of interviews by sheriff’s investigators show that one child told investigators that he heard a knock on the door and that “two bad men” said, “You’re going to die, one, two, three” and then, “no way, no way.”
The records show that child was sleeping in his parents’ bed when they were killed.