In the end, Briley Piper's apology for Chester Allan Poage's death came too late to impress the jury of eight men and four women who deliberated for slightly more than six hours before unanimously recommending the death penalty Friday.
Dottie Poage mouthed a silent "thank you" to the jury from her seat just a few feet from the man who, along with two other men, brutally murdered her son 11 years ago.
"This is in honor of Chester and of any other victim who has lost their lives in the whole world," Poage said later on the steps of the Pennington County Courthouse.
Dressed in the red and white stripes of a segregated inmate, Piper showed no emotion while the jury foreman read the verdict.
The jury unanimously agreed that Chester Allan Poage's murder met each of three aggravating circumstances they were given as measures and merited death by lethal injection.
Piper's guilt was never in question. He pleaded guilty to Poage's death in 2001 and waived his right to have a jury determine his sentence. Circuit Judge Warren G. Johnson sentenced him to death, but Piper appealed Johnson's sentence. The South Dakota Supreme Court granted Piper the right to a sentencing trial after determining that the judge gave Piper incorrect information when he told him a jury would have to unanimously agree on the sentence. In fact, a life sentence would have been the result if even a single juror refused to impose the death penalty.
A request for a change in venue moved the appeal from Lawrence County to Pennington County.
"My heart was beating about as hard and as fast as it's beat for a long time," Dottie Poage said Friday. "I'm very pleased with the jurors' decision. I stand by it. ... This is what punishment is all about. It's not making me a better person, and it's not making me a worse person. This is why we have juries, and that's why we have the system, and it's working, and let's keep up the good work."
Dottie Poage said she will attend Piper's execution, as she did Elijah Page's.
But that could conceivably be years in the future.
Joining Dottie Poage to hear the verdict were Ed and Peggy Schaeffer of Rapid City. The Schaeffer's son, Donnivan, was killed by Charles Russell Rhines in 1992.
Rhines is still appealing his death sentence.
"We need to be there for each other," Peggy Schaeffer said.
Poage said she and the Schaeffers share a unique bond that not everyone can understand.
"I just thank God for the lawyers we have and the people that listen and understand why it needs to be done," Poage said.
Poage said she believed the jury's intelligence and understanding of what cruelty and torture is helped them reach their conclusion.
"They followed the guidelines. The guidelines were all there, but the evidence was all there, too," Poage said.
Piper's parents, John and Linda Piper of Anchorage, Alaska, have shared the same courtroom for most of the week. Linda Piper left the courtroom in tears after the verdict was read.
Piper's attorneys, Robert Van Norman and Michael Stonefield, spent a few minutes with their client before leaving the courtroom without making a statement.
Lawrence County State's Attorney John Fitzgerald has spent the past two weeks repeating the details of Chester Allan Poage's torture and murder at the hands of Piper, Darrell Hoadley and Elijah Page. Hoadley is serving a life sentence after a jury convicted him of murder. Like Piper, Page pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death by Johnson. He ended his appeals and was executed by lethal injection in 2007.
Van Norman and Stonefield attempted to counter the aggravating circumstances surrounding the case with an exploration of the mitigating circumstances the jury could use to spare his life.
Piper was given the opportunity to address the jury Friday before closing arguments.
"I'm here because I am responsible for the death of Allan Poage. That's something I'm going to pay for the rest of my life," Piper said, standing at the defense table. As he has since the trial began, Piper wore a sports coat over an open dress shirt and beltless trousers. His shackled feet were concealed under the table.
Piper went on to say that he was "very young" when the murder occurred.
"If there is anything I could do to change what I did, I would," Piper said before turning to address Dottie Poage.
"To Mrs. Poage and her loved ones, I am very sorry for what I've done. I know I'll never deserve your forgiveness," Piper said.
Dottie Poage sat impassively through nearly two weeks of testimony in Piper's sentencing trial. She heard the graphic testimony repeated of her son's torture and death and Piper's role in the murder. She also heard theories from defense witnesses to explain why Piper, who turned 20 a week after killing her son, was involved in the murder.
Piper's parents both testified for their son.
Piper apologized to them for the shame he had brought to them.
"The fact that you both love me is my greatest blessing," Piper said.
Piper went on say that he owed apologies to many others, before concluding "I am so sorry for what I did."
Piper's words had no effect on Fitzgerald, who reminded the jury that Chester Allan Poage was "an innocent man." Fitzgerald called Poage's death "outrageous, vile, torturous and depraved."
Fitzgerald said the facts in the case warrant the death penalty, a penalty appropriate for the shedding of innocent lives.
Piper, Hoadley and Page ignored Poage's pleas for his life and mercy, Fitzgerald said.
"The whole murder was a series of steps. At any time, they could have stopped, but they didn't," Fitzgerald told the jury.
Mercy and justice are not the same thing, Fitzgerald said, warning the jury that Piper's attorneys would ask them to give Piper their sympathy and mercy.
"This is not about his goals and future," Fitzgerald said, pointing across the table to where Piper was seated.
When it was his turn to speak for Piper, Stonefield reminded jurors that they did not all have to agree.
The objection of only one juror would have automatically converted Piper's sentence from death to life.
Stonefield said there are no excuses for Chester Allan Poage's murder.
"We haven't argued mitigation as a defense," he said.
Chester Poage's death was a not a perfect crime. It was a "spontaneous" act that took three people to accomplish, Stonefield said -- young men who were drug users, he said.
Over the past 11 years, Piper has made the best of his life in prison, Stonefield said. His behavior has improved, and he is taking college courses.
Empathy, compassion and mercy add value to human life, Stonefield said, pleading for his client's life.
"But for drugs and criminal activity that all four boys were involved in, they would never have met, and that's the irony and tragedy ...," Van Norman told the jury
Outlining Piper's childhood, which was riddled with physical discipline, school expulsions, learning disabilities and juvenile crime, Van Norman asked the jury to consider the changes his client has made since entering prison.
Van Norman said he was "reluctantly leaving Briley to you.
"What you have to do look at is whether or not there's a spark here. Is there hope here?" Van Norman said, moving close to Piper.
In the end, Piper's conduct over the past 11 years failed to overshadow the heinous murder.
When Fitzgerald was asked what swayed the jury to reach its verdict, his response was brief: "The facts."
Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or firstname.lastname@example.org