Wake County triple murderer removed from sentencing hearing due to outbursts

Wake County News
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A convicted killer’s outbursts led to his removal from a Wake County courtroom which resulted in applause from the gallery.

Jonathan Sander, who was convicted Monday of killing his neighbors Sandy, Stephanie, and Elaine Mazzella, interrupted assistant district attorney Melanie Shekita as she made closing arguments during his sentencing hearing Friday morning.

Jurors did not reach a sentencing verdict Friday afternoon. They will return Monday morning to determine if he will serve life in prison or be sentenced to death.

Before the outburst, Shekita was in the process of showing jurors photographs of Elaine Mazzella after the 78-year-old was struck in the face and the abdomen with shotgun shells. Sander shouted that there was no blood under Mazzella’s body. 

He continues to contend the woman’s death was staged.

Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley warned Sander to be quiet, just as he had about five minutes earlier when Sander interrupted Shekita to say he did molest one of Elaine Mazzella’s grandchildren. 

Prosecutors said Sander killed the Mazzellas when law enforcement began to investigate accusations that he inappropriately touched a girl.

After his second outburst Friday, Shirley ordered bailiffs to remove Sander from the courtroom. Several people in the gallery who were seated with Sal Mazzella began to applaud.

The judge ordered the gallery to be quiet and threatened to arrest anyone in attendance who contributed to further disruptions of the court.

“This is not a spectator sport. This is not for entertainment,” Shirley said.

“If I hear another outburst from the gallery like I heard last time, I will remove you from the courtroom, but you’re going to be going through that door because I will hold you in contempt. I will not hesitate to do it. I don’t care who you are, or what your status is, decorum needs to be maintained in this courtroom.”

Judge Shirley brought the defendant back into the courtroom and warned him to keep quiet.

“Mr. Sander, you think you may be doing good for your case, but I can guarantee you (that) you are probably not. You need to keep quiet.”

Prosecutors told the jury that Sander’s outbursts are intended to manipulate them. Assistant district attorney Stacy Newton began to make her case an hour before his first interruption of the morning.

“What do we know about the defendant? He loves an audience,” Newton said.

“Since the trial proceedings have started, you’ve heard evidence that he comes over here, a security plan has to be put in place, it’s a little bit abnormal because of his continued outbursts during these judicial proceedings. This is a man who decides what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. Everything that he does is calculated and intended to serve his interests,” she said.

“His outbursts in the court are specifically planned by him, as suggested by the jail phone calls that you have heard in this case, and they are calculated and intended to serve his interests with respect to how he wants the outcome of this proceeding to go.”

Prosecutor Melanie Shekita asked the jurors to consider if Sander took delight in his murder in the same way he takes delight in his courtroom outbursts.

She warned them not to be manipulated by a man described by family and friends as a master presenter and salesman.

“I want you to think about all of the decisions that the defendant has made, in the years leading up to March 2016 and the time after that, bringing us to this place,” Shekita said.

“I want you to consider decisions that he has made in front of you all. He is trying to control this situation. You’ve seen what happens when he loses control or perceives that he’s lost control. The one thing that he cannot control is you.”

Sander’s mental health was at the heart of the sentencing phase of the trial, following his April 8 conviction of three counts of first-degree murder. Attorneys for both sides agree that Sander is bipolar, and suffers from extensive spells of paranoia and anxiety. Defense attorneys want the jurors to consider mental illness as a mitigating factor for why his life should be spared.

Raymond Tarlton, who serves as co-counsel for the defense, said Sander’s desire for attention can be considered as a reason to sentence him to life imprisonment.

“He will never hurt anyone again, or be heard from again except through contact with his own family. Life without parole ends the spotlight that the death penalty brings,” Tarlton said.

“It ensures that Jon remains locked away. It ensures that the media attention dies down, it ensures that those who desperately don’t want to be reminded of him don’t have to be.”

Sander’s angry outbursts came one day after he openly wept in court as his common-law wife read letters written by their three children. The notes detailed how much they miss their father and want him to come home.

Jurors did not reach a sentencing verdict Friday afternoon. They will return Monday morning to determine if he will serve life in prison or be sentenced to death.

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