Santa Rosa County jurors deliberated about three hours before deciding on life for the premeditated killings of Steven and Debra Zackowski.
MIILTON — Derrick Ray Thompson avoided the death penalty Thursday in his first of two murder trials connected with a pill-fueled killing spree across two counties.
Thompson, 45, was sentenced by a Santa Rosa County jury to life in prison at the conclusion of a sentence hearing Thursday. He was convicted last week of two counts of first-degree murder for the July 2014 killings of Milton residents Steven Zackowski, 60, and Debra Zackowski, 59, at the outset of a plot to further his prescription pill addiction. Thompson still faces a charge of first-degree murder in connection with the death of former Bay County Sheriff’s Office narcotics officer and nightclub owner Allen Johnson, 66, in which Bay County prosecutors intend to pursue capital punishment.
Thompson’s next court appearance on the remaining charge is scheduled for Feb. 22.
Santa Rosa County jurors deliberated about three hours Thursday before deciding on life for the premeditated killings of the Zackowskis. It was unclear what prompted the jury’s recommendation. However, defense attorney Michelle Hendrix requested in a jury instruction that they be able to factor in “mercy” when considering a punishment.
“The proposed special instruction does not invite the jury to arbitrarily disregard a decision to recommend death,” Hendrix wrote. “It does, however, advise them that regardless of their findings as to aggravation and mitigation, they may always consider mercy in making their decision as to whether (Thompson) should live or die.”
During the course of the trial, prosecutors used Thompson’s confession to all three homicides as a key piece of evidence. He allegedly made the statement after a manhunt ended in his capture outside a Troy, Ala., hunting lodge the day after police discovered Johnson slain inside his Lynn Haven home.
“I shot him twice in the head, stole his money and bought some pills,” Thompson told investigators during a taped conversation.
He then admitted to shooting Steven Zackowski once in the back of the head before forcing Zackowski’s wife to lead him to a safe where their pills were kept. Authorities found Debra Zackowski shot to death in a closet.
Thompson told authorities he then took the couple’s truck to Johnson’s Lynn Haven home, where he shot him in the back of the head. The truck Thompson was believed to be driving after the first killings also was found at the scene as he fled in Johnson’s vehicle toward Alabama.
Thompson had done electrical work for the Zackowskis and had been a friend of Johnson. His case is one of four capital offense cases in the 14th Judicial Circuit snagged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the way Florida imposed its death penalty was unconstitutional. His case is the first in the circuit to be tried under the new system, which requires juries reach a unanimous decision to recommend death.
Thompson is expected to go to trial in the 14th Judicial Circuit early next year and will face the possibility of execution.