HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – A Huntsville man convicted of 15 counts of capital murder could be sentenced to death Thursday in Madison County Circuit Court.
Christopher Henderson, 46, was convicted in July of stabbing and shooting five family members in New Market in August 2015 and then setting the family home on fire. He had no criminal history of violence.
Victims included his 9-month-pregnant wife Kristen Smallwood, unborn baby Loryn Brooke Smallwood, 8-year-old son Clayton Chambers, one-year-old nephew Eli Sokolowski and Kristen’s mother Jean Smallwood.
The case was marked not only by its brutality and death toll, but by the fact that Henderson was already married to another woman, Rhonda Carlson, when he married Kristen Smallwood.
These unusual circumstances came to light just days before the killings.
Henderson filed for divorce in July 2015, court records show. Kristen Smallwood filed a protection order against him on July 29, and on July 31, she filed a notice in court stating that a divorce was not necessary. The record maintains that she learned that Henderson was still married to Carlson. The murders took place on August 4, 2015.
Carlson, who was arrested with Henderson and charged with capital murder, testified against him. She said he was a lockpicker and bought a .22 handgun while they plotted the murders.
Weeks before the murders, Henderson inquired about the viability of a baby if the mother was killed. But Carlson said she told Henderson she didn’t want to look after another baby, so they just went ahead with the murders.
Family security camera video from the day of the murders and fires shows Henderson crawling around the house, Smallwood and his 8-year-old son returning from school shortly before being killed, Carlson heading to the property with a can of gasoline, and later a fire, which quickly grew so intense that would-be rescuers couldn’t get inside.
A medical examiner said he examined each person’s cause of death and confirmed that some of the victims were still alive when the house was set on fire, although their injuries were believed to have been fatal.
The autopsy of Henderson’s pregnant wife, Kristen Henderson, showed that she had been stabbed several times and hit in the neck. The unborn child was cut from its body and the autopsy revealed multiple stab wounds on the infant.
Kristen’s mother, Jean Smallwood was repeatedly hit and stabbed in the eyes. She died before the fire started. Eight-year-old Clayton was stabbed and unable to breathe, but still conscious when the fire started. One-year-old Eli was stabbed multiple times, but the cause of his death was carbon monoxide poisoning.
Henderson and Carlson were arrested on the same day as the murders. They had gone to Ditto Landing to burn her bloody clothes before being arrested at her home.
The jury deliberated for nearly two days before finding Henderson guilty of all counts, including capital murder, arson, capital murder of a child and capital murder in the commission of ‘another crime.
The case began in 2015, so Alabama’s 2017 end to the so-called judicial waiver in capital murder cases does not apply. The jury in that case recommended a death sentence by an 11: 1 vote, but Madison County Circuit Judge Chris Comer has the option of following the jury’s recommendation and sentencing Henderson to die, or disregard him and impose a life sentence without words.
The hearing is scheduled to start at 9 a.m.
Carlson made a deal with prosecutors to avoid a death sentence in exchange for his testimony. She will face life in prison without parole. Carlson had testified that she was not involved in the stabbing or shooting at the victims.
If Henderson is on death row, he joins a crowded list in Alabama. The state has 163 men and five women on death row.
The pace of executions has also slowed in recent years. Among the problems is the lack of availability of drugs that have been used for lethal injection. In August, the state said it was close to completing a nitrogen gas system for executions.
Alabama’s prison system is at about 140 percent of its capacity.
Based on figures from the Alabama Department of Corrections, the current average time on death row is 6,176 days, or just under 17 years.
The oldest prisoner currently on death row is 73 and the youngest on death row is 28.
Since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated by the United States Supreme Court, 67 inmates have been executed in Alabama.
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