Man guilty in double-murder

 

Michael Allen Browning is escorted out of a Tulsa County courtroom after jurors found him guilty of murdering a Glenpool couple, shooting their niece, and robbing and burning their house in 2001.

STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World


Tulsa County jurors convicted Michael Allen Browning of five felonies -- including the 2001 murders of a Glenpool couple -- Thursday evening.

The jurors will return to court Friday to consider whether he should be sentenced to death.

After deliberating for about 3-1/2 hours, the jurors imposed the maximum penalties for each of three of the felonies.

Browning, 27, was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder linked to the slayings of Harry Hye, 64, and Teresa Hye, 42.

More testimony will be presented Friday before jurors begin pondering punishment options -- death or life in prison, with or without the possibility of parole.

Investigators said the Hyes and their niece, Cenessa Tackett, then 21, were shot during an early morning robbery Feb. 18, 2001, before their Glenpool home was burned.

Tackett survived, and Browning received a life prison term Thursday upon being found guilty of a count of shooting her with an intent to kill.

Tackett indicated that Browning's co-defendant, Joel Shane Pethel, did the shooting after the three victims were bound with duct tape and put in a large walk-in closet, where she said Browning started a fire.

By law, Browning could be considered a "principal" in the shooting count -- even if he didn't fire a gun -- if he knowingly assisted in the crime.

Jurors meted out another life sentence upon convicting Browning of robbery and handed him a 35-year sentence and $25,000 fine for first-degree arson.

Browning, who did not testify on his own behalf, remained outwardly composed as the verdicts were announced in District Judge Rebecca Nightingale's courtroom.

Prosecutors Doug Drummond and Steve Kunzweiler contended that Browning planned to kill Tackett, who was then pregnant with his child, as well as the unborn child.

"Michael Browning chose to light a fire in that occupied closet and left that burning home with mortally wounded people inside," Kunzweiler said.

Tackett was able to get out of the house and later delivered a son who is now nearly 2 years old.

Pethel, whose charges will be resolved later, did not know the Hye family but likely was interested in the robbery loot, Drummond theorized.

"They believe no witnesses will live, but Cenessa's heroics ruin the plan," Drummond told the jury.

While the defense wanted to put Tackett on trial, "she is a hero everywhere" outside of the courtroom, he said.

Defense lawyer Robert Stubblefield argued that Tackett "wanted to get even" with Browning, "who denied paternity and was living with another woman."

Stubblefield said there was "not one bit of independent forensic evidence" to show that Browning was at the Hye home that morning. Stolen property was later recovered from Pethel's jacket and from the car and home of another man, but no stolen items were found in Browning's possession, he said.

But prosecutors pointed out that the description Tackett gave to investigators at the scene about how Browning was dressed did match the clothing he wore when he was arrested many hours later, indicating that she had seen him at the Hye home that morning.

Prosecutors allege that there are three aggravating circumstances -- as defined by statute -- to support a death sentence.

They alleged that Browning knowingly created a great risk of death to more than one person, that the murders were "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel," and that they were committed to avoid or prevent an arrest or prosecution.

By law, jurors need to find that only one aggravating circumstance exists to support a death sentence. On the other hand, jurors can find multiple aggravating circumstances and still spare a defendant from the ultimate punishment if they decide that there is sufficient mitigating evidence for the defendant.

Bill Braun, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8455 or via e-mail at bill.braun@tulsaworld.com.