updated 8/31/2007 9:28:09 PM ET 2007-09-01T01:28:09

A man accused of murdering and dismembering a woman should not face the death penalty because taking the victim's body parts was not "robbery," his attorney argued.

Sean Vincent Gillis, accused of killing eight women between 1994 and 2004, faces first-degree murder charges in the February 2004 death of Donna Bennett Johnston. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder last week in another of the deaths.

Under state law, Gillis can be convicted of first-degree murder — which could bring the death penalty — only if prosecutors prove an "aggravating circumstance." In a hearing Thursday, lawyers sparred over the prosecution argument that the death of Johnston met that definition because it occurred along with two other crimes, kidnapping and armed robbery.

The items taken in the robbery, prosecutors said, were a belt, blanket, earring backing, and one of Johnston's arms and a tattoo from one of her legs.

But it isn't robbery to take body parts because they don't have any monetary value, defense attorney Steven Lemoine told state District Judge Bonnie Jackson. As for the other items, he said, they were just "left over" from the homicide.

"There is no market for the (body parts) Mr. Gillis is accused of taking," he said.

But prosecutor Prem Burns said the case is unique: Most robbers want jewelry or money, but Gillis wanted body parts.

"He has to kill the victim first in order to take them," Burns argued. "These are things that have value to this defendant." Jurors should answer the questions raised by Lemoine, she said.

Man allegedly confessed to 8 killings
The defense said there are also problems with the kidnapping charge. The prosecution says she was tricked into going with him thinking he would pay her for sex. The defense says there is no way to know whether Johnston was held against her will for any amount of time.

A couple walking a dog found Johnston's body in a field on Feb. 27, 2004. Jackson did not immediately rule on the defense motion to throw out the first-degree murder charge in Johnston's death

First-degree murder can be punished either by life in prison or death by injection. Gillis already faces an automatic life sentence after pleading guilty last week in Port Allen to second-degree murder in the death of Joyce Williams, whose dismembered body was found in 2000.

Police have said the first victim was Anne Bryan, 81, who was slain in 1994 in her apartment in an upscale nursing home, but most of his victims were prostitutes and drug users. He allegedly confessed to eight slayings but defense lawyers are challenging the validity of the confessions.

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