ATLANTA (AP) — A federal inmate could face the death penalty after he was convicted Thursday of murdering his cellmate at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

The jury found Brian Richardson guilty of first-degree murder for the July 2007 killing of Steven Obara, who prosecutors say was targeted because he was a child molester. The verdict allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Richardson, who could be the first person sentenced to death in federal court this year.

The case spawned competing arguments about what led to Obara’s death. Prosecutors contended it was a case of cold-blooded murder while defense attorneys say he should have been charged with a lesser crime.

Richardson and Obara were brought together by happenstance when they were put in the same temporary cell at the Atlanta prison as they awaited transfers to other facilities. Richardson was in the middle of a 65-year sentence for armed bank robberies while Obara was serving 10 years for possessing child pornography and child molestation.

After Richardson learned of Obara’s past, prosecutors said, he began plotting the murder by lulling Obara into believing they were friends. He sat next to him at lunch and did him favors, like getting him stamps, and the two talked frequently in their cells.

That all changed on the evening of July 8, 2007, when Richardson attacked Obara. First, he stabbed his cellmate nine times with a fire extinguisher pin that another inmate had flattened into a shiv, according to testimony. Then he choked him repeatedly, avoiding routine security patrols, before finally strangling him with a sock.

After killing his cellmate, prosecutors say Richardson calmly shaved and then called guards to the cell. In interviews with federal investigators, he admitted to the killing and said he deserved to be punished for his crime by being sent to a maximum security prison or to death row.

“Take him at his word. He hated child molesters,” prosecutor Richard Moultrie told jurors during closing arguments on Tuesday. “And you have the opportunity to hold him accountable.”

Richardson’s lawyers acknowledged he killed his cellmate, but they said circumstances surrounding his death were murky. Defense attorney Stephanie Kearns suggested her client may have been following a “prison code” that requires inmates to rough up child molesters, and the attack quickly spun out of control.

“They are violent places that have rules of their own imposed by inmates on other inmates,” she said. “You have to try to step in the world Mr. Richardson lived in. And there’s a rule in prison that child molesters aren’t to be tolerated.”

The guilty verdict means that a lengthy sentencing phase will begin next week. Prosecutors are preparing to argue that Richardson deserves a death sentence for his crime and defense attorneys will counter that he should face a lesser punishment.

Some 69 federal defendants have been sentenced to death since 1988 and three have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. One federal convict was sentenced to death in 2011 and none have been sentenced this year, according to the center’s data.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)



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