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Jabari McKee declined to say anything in his own defense Friday prior to being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the robbery and murder of a Rootstown man.
But his victim's fiancee and family had plenty to say -- including a pledge of forgiveness to the 28-year-old Akron man who was found guilty last month of killing 41-year-old Bryan Burns after shooting him in the head inside Burns' Smith Avenue home.
Had the death penalty been an option in McKee's sentencing, "we would have been against it," Bryan Burns' mother, Patricia, told Common Pleas Judge Laurie Pittman.
Patricia Burns said her son was working on his master's degree in biblical studies and was engaged to be married when he died. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia several years ago, he battled drug addiction and was "full of anxiety."
"We always pray our children are hopeful, happy and safe," she said. "Mr. McKee, your mother wanted this for you, and I wanted this for Bryan."
Despite destroying her family and his own, she said the family forgave McKee.
"After much soul-searching, crying and praying, we forgive you," she said. "And with forgiveness, comes healing."
Quoting biblical Scripture, Bryan Burns' fiancee Jessica Price told the court McKee will still be able to talk to his family on the phone and visit with them while behind bars.
"Those are things you took from Bryan," she said, occasionally choking back tears and quoting not only the Ten Commandments -- "Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet, and, of course, thou shalt not kill," she told McKee -- but also "vengeance is mine, thus sayeth the Lord."
"For murder, arson, theft, lies and all the other sins you have committed, I have just one question for you," she asked McKee, turning to face him. "Was it worth it?"
Pittman convicted McKee last month on seven charges, including aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated arson, grand theft of a motor vehicle and three counts of theft following a weeklong trial in her courtroom.
On top of the life sentence, McKee received a total of 17 years for aggravated arson, aggravated robbery and using a firearm in the commission of robbery and murder. He was given credit for 406 days served in the Portage County jail and also ordered to pay approximately $3,588 in fines and court costs within 30 years -- which he may also do by completing community service work while incarcerated, Pittman noted.
Defense attorney Erik Jones asked Pittman to consider a lesser sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole and the least severe punishment for the other crimes he committed. He also said his client plans to appeal.
"I would argue this is not the worst form of aggravated murder," Jones told her. "My client has no extenuous prior record before these convictions and none of the special exacerbating characteristics that would lead this court to levy a sentence of life in prison without parole."
Assistant Prosecutor Eugene Muldowney asked Pittman to impose the maximum sentence allowed by law.
"There is nothing redeemable about Mr. McKee," he said. "He has shown a lack of remorse and coldness toward the victim and his conduct, your honor, not only insomuch as the murder of the victim and his conduct after the murder of the victim."
"We know he tried to cover the murder and destroy the evidence, attempted to burn the body and burn the house down, which failed," Muldowney added. "This isn't just somebody playing with matches. This is someone trying to cover up a murder."
Two days after Rootstown firefighters found Burns' body in the badly burned bedroom of his house on April 20, 2016, McKee was arrested in Kent behind the wheel of Burns' prized 2001 Ford Mustang. Burns' bank cards and laptop computer also were found in McKee's possession during the resulting investigation, and detectives discovered McKee had used the bank cards to take money out of Burns' accounts in the hours following the murder.
McKee told investigators he and Burns frequently smoked methamphetamine together and that Burns loaned him him his car and belongings to pay off a drug debt.
McKee spoke only a few times during Friday's hearing: Once when asked if he understood he has a right to appeal, once when Pittman asked him if he intended to appeal his conviction and another time when he confirmed he had nothing to say in his own defense prior to sentencing.
In each case, all he said was "Yes, your honor," in response to Pittman's questions. In that final instance, Pittman told McKee that prior to Friday's hearing, she hadn't made up her mind how she was going to sentence him, saying that she wanted to see "that you have a soul, that you're sorry for what you did," she told him.
"But I haven't seen that," Pittman said. "I haven't seen it."
She later commended Detective Lt. Greg Johnson, his team of detectives and deputies at the Portage County Sheriff's Office for "the great investigatory work they did" in solving the case, and said she hoped both the Burns family and McKee's family "can heal."
"The tragedy of two lives lost, for no reason," she said. "For $300."