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Man convicted of killing 5 in New Market receives death penalty

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 9:04 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 14, 2021 at 12:16 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Christopher Henderson has received the death penalty for the murder of five family members in 2015.

THE SENTENCING BEGINS

Over the summer, Henderson was convicted on more than a dozen capital murder charges for killing his pregnant wife, her mother and two children. On July 6, the same jury recommended the death penalty to the court.

Henderson has been held without bond until today’s hearing where the judge had the opportunity to break from the jury’s recommendation and decide to sentence Henderson to life in prison.

Christopher Henderson’s accomplice, Rhonda Carlson, accepted a plea deal in the case on July 15.

“It’s unspeakable what he did in this case, and he absolutely deserves what’s coming,” says Tim Gann with the Madison County District Attorney’s Office.

Gann says this is the third death penalty handed down in Madison County in the last 11 years. He says the crime was so heinous it will stay with the community forever.

“There’s no way this family is ever going to be made right. This is all we can do on earth to get earthly justice is this penalty. That’s it,” Gann said.

Henderson didn’t act alone, his other wife Rhonda Carlson took a plea deal for her role in the crime.

“Rhonda was very much a part of this from start to finish. She was a part of the planning. She was a part of the operation. But there is no blood on Rhonda’s hands. She did not take a knife and cut a baby out of the womb. That’s not who she is. She’s going to do life without. It’s death by prison for her,” Gann said.

But Defense Attorney Bruce Gardner says Carlson is just as guilty. Gardner asked the judge to also give Henderson life without parole, because the jury was not unanimous.

“Alabama is unique in allowing a vote of 10-2 to take somebody’s life. I personally disdain the death penalty. It’s just a barbaric institution in my view,” Gardner said.

We learned Thursday that Henderson almost lost his life- through COVID-19.

“He was in the jail sick for 24 days before he was admitted and finally taking to the hospital. He almost died. And was in ICU for almost two days. One of his cellmates in fact died,” Gardner said.

KELLY SMALLWOOD ADDRESSES THE COURT

At 8:40 a.m. on Thursday, the defense filed a motion to prohibit the death penalty since the July recommendation was not anonymous. During the 9 a.m. hearing, the only state witness to address the court was Kelly Smallwood. Smallwood’s son Eli was one of the five victims in 2015. Kelly’s sister was Henderson’s then nine-month pregnant wife Kristen.

“This has affected me in many ways,” said Kelly. “I lost my mother and my best friend. She was the one I could talk to about anything. I lost my sister Kristen. She loved especially when it came to her son and her unborn daughter Lauren.”

Kelly said if Kristen loved you, “you were loved fiercely.”

“Eli was my whole heart. I had to find a new way to get through each day without him. I never got to hear him say mommy or have his first day of school - graduate, get married, or take care of me when I get old.”

Kelly ended her address by saying she has lost the fear of death.

“I know where my family is...I know I will be reunited with my family and what a glorious day that will be.”

THE STATE’S TAKE ON THE DEATH PENALTY

State Attorney Tim Gann detailed how difficult a death penalty decision can be for all involved.

“I just want the court to know that we take the responsibility of seeking the death penalty very seriously,” said Gann.

“When we sat down and looked at this case, it was the easiest decision we have ever made to seek the death penalty. There is no question in my mind that he deserves the ultimate penalty.”

THE DEFENSE ARGUES FOR LIFE IN PRISON

Defense Attorney Bruce Gardner did not call any witnesses to address the court.

Instead, Gardner pushed for life in prison instead of the death penalty since the jury’s recommendation was not unanimous back in July.

“This man has no criminal history. With respect to where the death penalty is headed...in every other jurisdiction, this man lives.”

Gardner continued, “someday I predict it will be that way, it will require a unanimous jury. Maybe this is the case that will do that. But we’ll find out.”

CHRISTOPHER HENDERSON SPEAKS

Henderson issued the final remarks to the court.

“First of all, I’d like to give my deepest apologies,” started Henderson. “This is an event that should have never happened.”

“I would also like to apologize to my mom and my daughter. Mom...you’ve aged 20 years in such a short time. And I know it’s hard on you.”

“Christie...I know I wasn’t there for you in your high school years. I’m really sorry.”

Henderson said all of his comments come from the heart.

“I laid in bed with COVID the past month and I tore them up because this is something you can’t put on paper.”

He also stated he believed the death penalty to be unconstitutional.

“They pulled the medicine off the market that they used.”

His last comment was on the subject of Rhonda Carlson.

“There’s a lot of questions not asked about Rhonda Carlson. She’s a very vicious person. I can attest to that.”

THE SENTENCE IS REVEALED

Shortly before 9:30 a.m. on October 14, Judge Chris Comer sentenced Christopher Henderson to the penalty of death.

“Mr. Henderson...may God have mercy on your soul,” said Judge Comer. “May God provide peace to the families of this tragedy.”

PREVIOUS INTERVIEW WITH FAMILY MEMBERS

Kristen Henderson’s brother, Keith Smallwood, said his family members who were killed, were good people.

“These were people that were happy to be alive and part of a strong family that we all loved each other so it’s been hard but it’s also been - we’ve been resolute because we know where they are and we know they’re smiling,” said Smallwood.

Kristen’s sister, Kelly Smallwood Sokolowski, lost her own child to Henderson. That’s the 14-month-old victim Eli.

“Eli...the light of my life. My one and only child. But I did have a dream. My daddy passed away in September of last year and I had a dream and my daddy was holding Eli in that dream. I know that I will see them again that’s one thing that was taken away from me that I’m thankful for. I’m not scared of death anymore because I know what’s waiting on me,” said Sokolowski.

Smallwood shares what it was like facing Henderson in court.

“I don’t know whether he cares or whether it matters to him, probably not. But it does to me, to let him know I’m not going anywhere,” said Smallwood.

BACKGROUND OF THE CASE

“The facts of this case were tough from the outset, I’ve known that for the last six years,” said Henderson’s defense attorney Bruce Gardner.

Overwhelming evidence that led to conviction includes Henderson’s phone search history, body camera footage, and surveillance video that places Henderson and the other suspect in this case, Rhonda Carlson, at the crime scene.

In Carlson’s plea deal from the state, she agreed to testify against Henderson, taking the death penalty off the table for her. Carlson admitted to helping plan the murders but denies actual involvement in the killings.

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