In a surprise end to an emotionally charged trial, jurors decided Wednesday that a man who deliberately rammed his Cadillac onto a Costa Mesa playground should be spared the death penalty for killing two toddlers and instead spend the rest of his life in prison.
The decision came just a week after jurors concluded that Steven Allen Abrams was sane at the time of the killings despite evidence that the defendant was mentally disturbed.
The panel's two men and 10 women declined to comment on their deliberations, but prosecutors said the jury was likely influenced by powerful testimony last month portraying Abrams as battling voices he called the "brainwave police" that urged him to kill.
Jurors "must have felt that it had some weight in the taking of his life," said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Debora Lloyd. "At least we can tell the families [of the victims] that they won't be bumping into him on the streets in two years."
The verdict divided relatives of the two children who died in the crash: Sierra Soto, 4, and Brandon Wiener, 3. Isabella Wiener, Brandon's grandmother, said she thought Abrams received a fair sentence.
"I believe his parents will be mourning for him as well," Wiener said. "You have to forgive him, but you can't forget."
Eric Soto, father of Sierra, said Abrams should have to face the death penalty but said he will learn to live with the jury's decision.
While blaming Abrams for the crash, Soto also took aim at the mental health care system for failing to adequately treat Abrams before the May 1999 crash.
"Obviously, the system failed," said Soto, a former deputy sheriff in Los Angeles, who said he detained "more than 100" people for psychiatric evaluations while a deputy.
"I was hoping for what I thought was justice--capital punishment," Soto said. "[But] I can't say I'm disappointed. Disappointment would be seeing him walk out of here able to do this to somebody else."
The verdict of life without parole is only the third time in six years that an Orange County jury has rejected prosecutors' calls for the death penalty. In the same period, 22 defendants have been sentenced to death.
For almost a month, Abrams sat slumped silently in his chair as his attorneys tried to put a spotlight on his mental illness.
He was once hospitalized and released within 72 hours after complaining that he could hear voices urging him to kill innocent people, according to testimony. Later, he was rearrested and referred to jail psychiatrists after stalking an ex-girlfriend. But again he was released soon afterward with little treatment to show for his visit.
After the hearing, Deputy Public Defender Denise Gragg said she hoped the trial might prompt sweeping reforms of the mental health care system.
"We tend to shove the mentally ill aside and forget about them if they're not bothering us, and I think that's a mistake," Gragg said.
"If this case helps people become more aware of the need to devote more resources to the care of the mentally ill, that would be a blessing grown from tragedy."
Prosecutors never disputed Abrams' psychiatric problems but argued that many of his delusions were more the product of methamphetamine abuse than psychosis.
The penalty verdict closes one of the last chapters in a double-killing that shocked even Lloyd, Abrams' veteran prosecutor, in part because of the victims' young age.
Lloyd said she was was unable to bring herself to look at the autopsy photographs of the two dead toddlers until this week.
And before setting a final sentencing hearing for Dec. 15, Judge John J. Ryan told jurors at the close of the hearing that the case was "as difficult a trial as jurors have to sit on."
One juror, who declined to give her name, said after the hearing that the tragic circumstances of the case helped forge a close relationship between members of the panel, who frequently ate lunch together.
"We bonded," she said, "kind of like hostages do."