ATLANTA — A judge sentenced a Georgia man to 40 years in prison Wednesday for throwing scalding water on a gay couple sleeping in an apartment, leaving them with severe burns that required surgery.
Jurors deliberated for about 90 minutes before finding Martin Blackwell, 48, guilty of eight counts of aggravated battery and two counts of aggravated assault in the February attack on Anthony Gooden and Marquez Tolbert.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Henry Newkirk said the evidence was overwhelming and that Blackwell had behaved in a soulless and malicious way. He noted that it "takes a long time" for a pot of water to boil.
"You had so many outs where the voice of reason could have taken over," the judge told Blackwell, who had faced up to 80 years in prison.
Prosecutors said it was a vicious, premeditated attack. Tolbert testified that after pouring hot water on them, Blackwell grabbed him as he jumped and screamed in pain and told him: "Get out of my house with all that gay."
Georgia doesn't have a hate crime law. The FBI said in March that it had opened a hate crime investigation, but spokesman Kevin Rowson said Wednesday that the agency isn't commenting on that probe.
Blackwell's defense attorney acknowledged that he poured water on the pair, but asked jurors to find that it was reckless conduct.
"It's not about hate. It's about old-school culture, old-school thinking," Monique Walker told the jury.
The defense didn't call any witnesses and didn't present any evidence. Blackwell, who remained stoic throughout the trial, did not take the stand. He showed no reaction when the verdict was read.
Blackwell was a long-distance truck driver and lived with his girlfriend, Kim Foster, at her sister's apartment in College Park when he was in town. Gooden, who is Foster's son, and Tolbert had been dating about a month and were sleeping at the apartment Feb. 12 after working an overnight shift when Blackwell dumped scalding water on them.
Blackwell's attorney said her client felt the young men's behavior was disrespectful and that there were certain things people sharing a house shouldn't do.
Prosecutor Fani Willis scoffed at the idea.
"We're not going back to when you get to treat people differently because of who they are," she said in closing arguments.
Walker said Blackwell often made inappropriate comments to various members of the household — asking about their sex lives and calling them derogatory names — and throwing water on the pair was just an extension of that reckless behavior. He didn't intend to hurt the young men, he just wanted to get them to stop their disrespectful behavior, she said.
The prosecutor said Blackwell's actions were well thought out. He took the time to select the biggest pot in the house, filled it with water and waited for it to boil. That gave him plenty of time to think about what he was doing and the consequences, Willis said.
Gooden, 24, spent about a month in the hospital, two weeks of that in a medically induced coma, and Tolbert, 21, spent 10 days in the hospital. Both men suffered severe burns that required multiple surgeries and skin grafts.
They both testified Tuesday that they suffered great pain and were unable to perform even the most basic everyday tasks — eating, bathing and using the bathroom — without help when they got out of the hospital.
"I'm ecstatic. I think justice has been served," Tolbert told reporters after the verdict. He was nervous before the trial, but once he testified about what had happened he felt a weight lift, he said.
Having gone through such an ordeal makes him realize that life is precious, Tolbert said, and he's ready to move on and focus on going to school to study architecture with a minor in computer engineering. He and Gooden remain friends and check in on each other to see how the other is healing, he said.
Prosecutors asked jurors to find Blackwell guilty of aggravated battery for disfigurement and loss of use of body parts and guilty of aggravated assault for dumping the hot water on them.