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Sander guilty in triple murder case. Jury will now decide on death penalty.

Jonathan Sander found guilty of killing three members of the family next door

Jonathan Sander is guilty of first-degree murder in the 2016 slaying of his neighbors the Mazzella family, a verdict that sets up a new phase deciding whether he receives the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
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Jonathan Sander is guilty of first-degree murder in the 2016 slaying of his neighbors the Mazzella family, a verdict that sets up a new phase deciding whether he receives the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

Convicted of first-degree murder Monday, Jonathan Sander again lashed out at his victims’ family, mouthing an obscenity and dismissing an order from the judge.

“Put me to death,” he told Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley. “That’s what’s happening anyway.”

Jurors found Sander guilty on all three counts of first-degree murder in the 2016 triple slaying of his neighbors the Mazzella family, triggering the question of whether the 55-year-old will receive the death penalty.

The decision came after two weeks of evidence capped by Sander’s recorded confession, in which he described blasting in the door and killing his former best friend Sandy Mazzella with a shotgun. His neighbor’s wife, Stephenie, and 76-year-old mother, Elaine, also died from close-range shotgun wounds.

Sander said he entered the Mazzella house in a blackout rage brought on by his neighbors accusing him of molesting an underage member of their family, a crime he denied. Sander told a Wake County sheriff’s deputy afterward, “I wanted to kill him so his family would be hurt like my family was.”

As friends led a sobbing Sal Mazzella, the husband of Elaine and father of Sandy, from the courtroom after the verdict, Sander yelled, “See you soon, Sal. Have a nice day.”

Sander then mouthed an obscenity to Mazzella.

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Sal Mazzella, a member of the victims’ family, reacts after a jury convicted Jonathan Sander of first-degree murders at the Wake County Justice Center, Monday, April 8, 2019. Sander shot and killed his former best friend, Sandy Mazzella, along with Mazzella’s wife, Stephenie, and 76-year-old mother, Elaine, near Wake Forest in 2016. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

The jury had left the room prior to Sander’s outburst, but Shirley warned him to watch his words. Two weeks ago, on the trial’s first day, Sander was escorted from the courtroom after yelling an expletive at the elder Mazzella as he wept on the witness stand. Shirley warned him that he would watch his own trial via remote broadcast if he caused another outburst. He has been handcuffed and shackled for the duration of the trial.

Sander’s conviction sets up the possibility of capital punishment, an increasing rarity in North Carolina.

The state has not executed an inmate since 2006, and most prisoners on death row have been waiting there for at least two decades, according to the nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation. No death sentences were handed down statewide in 2017 or 2018.

Last month, a Wake County jury condemned convicted killer Seaga Gillard to death for a double murder at a Raleigh motel, part of a string of crimes targeting sex workers.

The penalty phase of Sander’s trial resumes Tuesday.

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Jonathan Sander mouths profanity at a member of the victims’ family after a jury convicted Sander of first-degree murders at the Wake County Justice Center, Monday, April 8, 2019. Sander shot and killed his former best friend, Sandy Mazzella, along with Mazzella’s wife, Stephenie, and 76-year-old mother, Elaine, near Wake Forest in 2016. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.
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