Sentencing Trial Set to Begin for Florida Man Who Executed 5 Women at Bank in 2019

Sentencing Trial Set to Begin for Florida Man Who Executed 5 Women at Bank in 2019
Zephen Xaver on Jan. 23, 2019. (Highlands County Sheriff's Office via AP)

Zephen Xaver walked into a central Florida bank in 2019, fatally shot five women and then called police to tell them what he did. Now 12 jurors will decide whether the 27-year-old former prison guard trainee is sentenced to death or life without parole.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in the sentencing trial after numerous delays caused by the pandemic, legal wrangling, and attorney illness.

Mr. Xaver pleaded guilty last year to five counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 23, 2019, massacre at the SunTrust Bank in Sebring, about 84 miles southeast of Tampa. The trial only will decide Mr. Xaver’s sentence. Opening statements are expected in two weeks, with the trial lasting about two months.

His victims included customer Cynthia Watson, 65, who had been married less than a month; bank teller coordinator Marisol Lopez, 55, who was a mother of two; banker trainee Ana Pinon-Williams, a 38-year-old mother of seven; bank teller Debra Cook, a 54-year-old mother of two and a grandmother; and banker Jessica Montague, 31, a mother of one and stepmother of four.

NTD Photo
A Highlands County Sheriff’s SWAT vehicle is stationed out in front of a SunTrust Bank branch in Sebring, Fla., where authorities say five people were shot and killed, on Jan. 23, 2019. (Chris O’Meara/AP Photo)

Michael Cook said he hopes his wife’s killer gets the death penalty and described being very frustrated by the years of delays. The trial was set to begin at least two other times, but was postponed.

“I have purposely not asked too many questions because I don’t want to get more frustrated and angry,” Mr. Cook said. He plans to attend the trial.

Lead prosecutor Paul Wallace and lead defense attorney Jane McNeill both declined to comment. Prosecutors are expected to argue Mr. Xaver deserves the death penalty because the killings were cold, cruel, heinous, and planned. Mr. Xaver’s attorneys are expected to cite what they have described as his years-long mental health problems as they seek leniency.

Under a new Florida law, for Mr. Xaver to receive the death penalty the jury’s vote only has to be 8–4 for execution instead of unanimous. It was enacted after the 2018 Parkland high school shooter could not be sentenced to death for murdering 17 people despite a 9–3 jury vote.

Sebring is a city of about 11,000 residents and known internationally for its annual 12 Hours of Sebring endurance auto race. Agriculture, tourism, and retirees drive its economy.

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