Image: Justin Thurber
Alex Gambill  /  The Arkansas City Traveler via A
Justin Thurber, shown leaving the courtroom on Feb. 11, was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering Jodi Sanderholm in January 2007.
updated 2/17/2009 6:55:09 PM ET 2009-02-17T23:55:09

A jury on Tuesday recommended the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a 19-year-old college student two years ago.

The same jury that convicted Justin Thurber last week of capital murder in the January 2007 death of Jodi Sanderholm deliberated for about four hours over two days before deciding that he should be executed. Judge Jim Pringle, who set Thurber's sentencing for March 20, still could decide to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole instead.

The families of both Sanderholm and Thurber cried as Tuesday's verdict was read. Sanderholm's family gathered in a circle and prayed after the judge dismissed the jury.

"I think it is absolutely just," Brian Sanderholm, the victim's father, said of the decision. "It's a great deterrent for anyone else thinking about doing this."

Prosecutors said Thurber, 25, of Arkansas City, abducted Sanderholm and drove her around the community for more than four hours before finally walking her into the woods, where he raped, sodomized and strangled her. The body of the Cowley College student was found several days later in a wildlife area near Arkansas City.

Thurber did not testify during his trial, but muttered "I'm sorry" to Sanderholm's family while leaving the courtroom after the jury started deliberating his punishment Monday.

Thurber's parents and sister had asked the jury to spare his life.

Sanderholm's family expressed sympathy for Thurber's family, but noted that they will at least be able to talk with and write to their son before he is executed.

"They know their son is going to die," Cindi Sanderholm said. "We weren't given that option."

Prosecutors said Thurber deserved the death penalty because the killing was carried out in a "heinous and cruel manner."

His defense attorney, Ron Evans, had argued that Thurber was bipolar and had low intelligence. Had Thurber's IQ been 10 points lower, the defense noted, he would be considered mentally disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

"I've been trying for two years, and I'd like to be able to give you this neat package to explain what's wrong in his brain that caused this mayhem," Evans said. "This is the best I can do."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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