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Teens get life for murder

LAWRENCEVILLE - The dream of a fruitful life in America for two teens reared in a hardscrabble Guatemalan orphanage crashed on the courtroom floor.

The O'Connell sisters wept Friday afternoon as they were convicted of murder and promptly sentenced to life behind bars, a prosecutor said.

The teens could be 47 years old when their next chance to live outside prison walls rolls around.

The trial - a complex, three-week affair involving myriad forensic evidence and psychological testimony and theory - came to a swifter resolution Friday than sources close to the case had expected.

After roughly seven hours of deliberation, the jury found Brenda and Catherine O'Connell guilty on all counts - murder, felony murder and aggravated assault - in the August 2006 strangulation death of their adoptive mother, Muriel O'Connell.

Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Tom Davis sentenced the teens to life in prison a short time later.

The teens won't be eligible for parole until the year 2038 - 30 years from now, said Dawn Taylor, Chief Deputy Assistant District Attorney.

"I think it's the right outcome," Taylor said. "I think they murdered her in malice. I think they planned it. I think they at least began the attack in her sleep."

Among key evidence tipping the jury in favor of the state, said Taylor, was the "unexplained blood on the bed," the small splotches matching the victim's DNA that the girls never fully explained in testimony, she said.

"The evidence was clear," Taylor said. "There was nothing (defense counsel) could do to explain away the physical evidence."

Defense attorneys could appeal the ruling or file for a new trial. Neither Stacy Levy nor Hillary Krepistman, defense counsel for the teens in the joint trial, returned messages seeking comment Friday.

The defense theorized that the girls suffered from battered person's syndrome, brought on by continued mental and physical abuse, and killed their mother in self-defense during a fight.

Jurors, however, sided with prosecutors, who said the girls planned a calculated and covert attack on the 57-year-old as she lay in bed the night of Aug. 6. The girls were 15 years old at the time.

Muriel O'Connell, who never bore children of her own, adopted the unrelated girls at separate times from the same orphanage.

The victim's cousin and lifelong friend, Jeannie Allison of Florida, said the family has been holding on to Muriel O'Connell's ashes, waiting until her murder is resolved.

Following Friday's ruling, Allison said a decision was finalized: The ashes will be spread at a beach during a family reunion next summer.

"I want to express my thanks to the jury," Allison said. "I realize what a tough job it was for them and how courageous it was to bring in that verdict.

"I'm glad that it's finally come to a close."