Jury to decide whether to recommend death penalty for man who murdered Alianna DeFreeze

CLEVELAND - A jury will decide whether to recommend the death penalty for convicted murderer Christopher Whitaker during the sentencing phase of his trial, which began Wednesday morning.

Whitaker's attorneys are trying to spare his life by presenting mitigating circumstances, including drug addiction and a troubled upbringing, and Whitaker is expected to take the stand.

Last week, the same jury convicted the 45-year-old on 10 counts, including aggravated murder, rape and kidnapping in the brutal torture of 14 year-old Alianna DeFreeze.

Whitaker abducted the teen on her way to school in January of 2017, then raped her and used tools to kill her in a vacant house on Fuller Avenue in Cleveland. Whitaker confessed to the crime and did not dispute the charges against him during the first phase of the trial.

"This is not about excuses. You heard us say that throughout these proceedings," defense attorney Fernando Mack said during opening statements. "It's not about justification. It gives you a road map and gives you information we believe weighs in favor of one of those life sentences."

Wednesday morning, social worker Mary McDonnell, testified about Whitaker's childhood, drug use and extensive criminal history.

"There are multiple reasons for mitigation in this case, in Christopher's life," McDonnell testified.

One of Whitaker's seven siblings also testified about his troubled upbringing and loss of their mother.

Prosecutors argued that during the first phase of the trial they presented evidence proving Whitaker was aware of his action and the aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating circumstances.

"You already heard the evidence regarding the rape, regarding the kidnapping,  regarding the aggravated burglary, during the trial phase," said Assistant Prosecutor Andrew Santolli. "And you found this defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of each and every one of these felony murder specifications."

Wednesday afternoon, defense psychologist Dr. Robert Kaplan testified about a series of tests he conducted on Whitaker. Kaplan testified he found Whitaker's troubled childhood, history of drug use and ongoing anger issues likely played a role in his actions.

"I'm pretty certain that if these three things didn't happen, if any of these three things didn't happen, we wouldn't be here today: If his mother didn't die, if his sister wasn't subjected to domestic violence he had to see as a child or if he had a positive male role model in his life," Kaplan said.

He stated he believed Whitaker dissociated from his actions during the crime due to a "split in his mind."

"You have repressed anger suddenly released, you have the dissociation that prevents him from being able to realize what he's doing with a rational mind and then you have the cocaine that makes him even more impulsive," Kaplan said. "I believe the actual act of the violence he committed against the victim was a manifestation of repressed anger that then suddenly overwhelmed him."

Prosecutors grilled Kaplan during cross-examination on everything from his credentials to his methodology to his findings.

Continuing coverage here.