Christopher Henderson found guilty of murdering 5 people

Alabama News
October 02 2021 06:00 pm

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – After four days of testimony and nearly two days of deliberation, the jury has reached a verdict in the Christopher Henderson murder trial.

Henderson has been found guilty on all 15 counts:

Eli Sokolowski:

  • guilty– Intentional murder of a victim under the age of 14
  • guilty– Intentional murder committed during the course of first-degree burglary
  • guilty– Intentional murder during arson in the first degree

Clayton Chambers:

  • guilty– Intentional murder of a victim under the age of 14
  • guilty— Intentional murder committed during the course of first-degree burglary
  • guilty– Intentional murder during arson in the first degree

Loryn Brook Smallwood:

  • guilty– Intentional murder of a victim under the age of 14
  • guilty– Intentional murder committed during the course of first-degree burglary
  • guilty–Intentional murder during arson in the first degree

Four capital murder charges in the death of Kristen Smallwood:  

  • guilty –Intentional murder committed during the course of first-degree burglary
  • guilty– Murder of two or more pursuants in the course of one scheme or course of conduct
  • guilty– Intentional murder during arson in the first degree
  • guilty— Intentional murder during the course of violating the protection order a victim issued against the defendant

Two counts of capital murder in the death of Jean Smallwood, Kristen’s mother:

  • guilty– Intentional murder committed during the course of first-degree burglary
  • guilty– Intentional murder during arson in the first degree.

Henderson is accused of killing five people at a New Market home in 2015 before setting it on fire.

The victims were identified as Henderson’s 9-months-pregnant wife Kristen Smallwood, her unborn baby Loryn Brooke Smallwood, her 8-year-old son Clayton Chambers, her one-year-old nephew Eli Sokolowski, and Kristen’s mother, Jean Smallwood.

The trial began last Friday with the jury hearing from a deputy whose body camera video showed the house on fire, a medical examiner who outlined injuries the victims suffered, and home security video showing Henderson at the scene the day of the killings.

During her opening statement, Madison County Assistant District Attorney told jurors the state had substantial evidence against Henderson and that he should be found guilty, with the death penalty as punishment.

Defense attorney Bruce Gardner argued a different point, saying Rhonda Carlson, Henderson’s first wife and an alleged accomplice in the killings, was to blame.

Henderson never divorced Carlson before marrying Kristen Smallwood.

Carlson reached a deal with the prosecution to testify against Henderson in exchange for avoiding the death penalty; Gardner called it a deal with the devil.

Gardner told the jury Carlson planned the killings, performed them, and had the motivation to do so.

Kristen Smallwood’s brother Keith testified that Kristen, Henderson, and Clayton had returned to Alabama from Michigan and moved into the Smallwood’s parents’ home on St. Clair Lane.

After living there for several months, relationship issues developed, and the family asked Henderson to leave the home in June 2015; changing the locks as well.

Christopher Henderson filed for divorce in July 2015; Kristen Henderson filed for a protection order against him on July 29 and filed a supplemental notice to the court on July 31, saying a divorce wasn’t necessary.

Keith Smallwood testified he’d purchased a video security system for the New Market home a week before the killings; Kristen helped him figure out where to point the cameras. Phone and email notifications would alert when somebody was on the property.

Security video played in court Thursday showed a person prosecutors say is Rhonda Carlson trying to enter a door near the home’s garage, then getting into an SUV and driving away.

Kristen Smallwood is then seen returning home after picking up her eight-year-old son from school; he can be seen exiting a van and carrying his backpack into the house. Later, a visibly pregnant Kristen entered the house.

Carlson returned to the home with a gas can and some time later, the video showed what appeared to be Henderson running out of the home.

The first witness for the prosecution, Madison County Sheriff’s Deputy Drew Lane, testified that he received a domestic violence call and saw a plume of smoke when he got to the scene.

As he got closer, Kristen’s sister, 1-year-old Eli’s mother, was frantically trying to get his attention, saying there were people inside the home.

Lane testified that he grabbed a gas mask and tried breaking windows with another deputy, yelling inside the home to see if anyone inside needed help.

There was no response.

Keith Smallwood testified he had been the first family member on the scene and immediately used a sledgehammer to open the front door; he was blown back by draft from the fire and smoke, unable to get any closer to the home.

A representative from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, who assisted in the autopsies – the doctor who performed them has since died – gave gruesome details about the injuries. Pictures were also entered into evidence, apparently showing all victims’ bodies charred beyond recognition.

WARNING: Details of the second day of testimony may be considered graphic or unpleasant to process.

On Friday, day 2 of testimony, Rhonda Carlson, testified that she and Henderson first attempted to kill the Smallwood family days before the actual murders took place. They tried to do it at night but failed.

Carlson testified hat they decided to commit the crimes when Kristen Smallwood’s father wasn’t home. According to her, Henderson has a personal grudge against Kristen’s father, and after initially wanting to kill him, Henderson opted to kill the father’s loved ones.

The plan was to drop Henderson off at home and he was going to call when the murders were done.

However, he forgot his cell phone when Carlson left to get a gas canister. She testified she brought a gas can back to the home, but couldn’t get in – a statement apparently verified by the security footage played during Day 1.

Carlson further testified she went to the front door and saw Henderson standing near one of the victims. After seeing another victim in the kitchen, Henderson didn’t believe anyone else was alive in the house.

Carlson has not said she took part in the act of killing outside of planning, handling and buying materials. Carlson claims Henderson stood in the house for some time before pouring the gas and lighting it with a lighter.

Henderson did not show any obvious emotion as Carlson unloaded her story to the jury.

Carlson said they went to Ditto Landing after the killings to burn Henderson’s bloody clothes, and they were arrested a short time later.

Prior to Carlson taking the stand, the jury heard from investigators about digital evidence from two of three phones collected. Lock-picking videos were shared with the jury along with a shooting range video. The videos appear to be from the internet. Carlson recognized the videos, saying Henderson shared them with her…

Dr. Steven Dunton provided graphic details of the injuries to jurors at the start of the day, marking wounds on diagrams for jurors.

WARNING: VERY GRAPHIC DETAILS AHEAD.

Smallwood was 9-months pregnant. Her baby was removed and also sustained stab wounds. Smallwood’s 8-year-old son, Clayton Chambers, was stabbed multiple times. Her 1-year-old nephew was also stabbed several times. The 1-year-old is believed to of died from carbon monoxide poisoning from when the house was set on fire. Dr. Dunton says there is no way to tell if the infant was conscious when the fire overtook the house and the victims.

Based on the lung conditions of most of the victims, Dr. Dunton testified that all but one were not breathing before the home was set on fire.

When the court reconvened Monday, the prosecution continued questioning Rhonda Carlson, and after resting, the defense had a chance to cross-examine Carlson for the first time.

Much of the morning was spent watching her interrogation video from when she was first arrested in 2015.

But, before playing Carlson’s interrogation video, defense attorney Bruce Gardner asked, “Do you agree the truth does not come easy for you?”

Carlson replied, “Yes sir.”

While the audio was difficult to hear in the media staging area, from what News 19 was able to hear, Carlson continued to deny having any involvement in the killings, saying she had no idea what happened inside the house.

As the interrogation video continued, she changed her story eventually admitting to driving Henderson to the home, bringing a gas can, stepping inside the garage door, and knowing people were dying or dead inside.

Several times in the recording, the investigators leave Carlson alone in the room; once for around ten minutes. During the trial, defense attorney Gardner said he allowed the silence to play to show that Carlson did not display any sign of empathy.

At one point during the trial Monday morning. Gardner asked Carlson what she was smiling about in the interrogation video. She said she didn’t know.

Gardner said Carlson bringing the gas can to the home she was essentially bringing the grenade to the crime. Carlson agreed.

Gardner asked Carlson if she essentially killed one of the children.

She said, “Yes sir.” According to the autopsy report, the lungs of one victim show they were still breathing when the fire started.

After the court’s lunch break, the defense continued its questioning of Rhonda Carlson,  entering a slew of recorded phone calls Carlson made while she was in jail before she was indicted.

A bubbly Carlson asked about her family and repeatedly told them she had ‘nothing to do with it’ and she was in a fog the day of the crimes. After the calls, Gardner pointed out Carlson lied. An emotionless, matter-of-fact Carlson simply agreed saying, “Yes sir.”

Gardner then played an audio recording from 2019 when he says Carlson cut a “deal” with prosecutors. In that interview, Carlson outlined the planning process leading up to the killings. Carlson says that in days prior to the murders, Henderson researched how to take Kristen’s unborn baby saying he planned to raise it with Carlson.

But after the murders, Carlson said Henderson told her he changed his mind about wanting the child.

During that 2019 interview played for the court, Carlson says on the day of the murders, after some errands and a nap, she and Henderson drove to a gas station to pick up lighters and Gatorade. When Kristen Smallwood drove by, Carlson said that she got in the driver’s seat, and they headed to the house. Carlson checked to see if the garage door was open and then waited outside while Henderson went inside.

Carlson said she later went inside with a gas can and saw one of the deceased victims. Henderson then poured gasoline and set the house on fire, and they ran away. She said she thought everyone inside the house was deceased.

Also, during that recording, Carlson explained she and Chris Henderson had broken up for several months before they got back together in 2015. During that time, Henderson remarried, and Kristen Smallwood was pregnant with his baby. Carlson said she was happy for them.

But after the recording stopped, Gardner questioned that, asking if she remembered telling someone she wanted Chris, but she had to get rid of Kristen first. Carlson said she didn’t remember.

Gardner brought up Carlson’s mental health, saying she has a 12-hundred-page medical record from her time in jail. He then explained that Carlson reported having auditory and visual hallucinations in 2016 and told a doctor she had been hallucinating since before the 2015 killings. She was diagnosed as psychotic and is currently taking multiple medications for her mental health.

The prosecution also called two other people to testify before resting their case, a forensic scientist and a retired investigator for the Madison County Sheriff’s Office who was the lead investigator the day of the killings.

The jury began deliberating Tuesday, after the defense surprisingly rested their case without calling a single witness of their own.

Even after Judge Chris Comer reminded Henderson he had the opportunity to take the stand, he declined to do so.

The trial immediately moved to closing arguments. Both sides argued about Rhonda Carlson’s involvement in and relevance to the case.

Madison County Assistant District Attorney Shauna Barnett laid out all 15 capital murder charges against Henderson, explaining why he should be found guilty for each and every one.

Christopher Henderson is facing three capital murder charges for each of the three children that were killed, making it a total of nine charges associated with their deaths:

  • Intentional murder of a victim under the age of 14
  • Intentional murder committed during the course of first-degree burglary
  • Intentional murder during arson in the first degree

Four capital murder charges in the death of Kristen Smallwood:  

  • Intentional murder committed during the course of first-degree burglary
  • Murder of two or more pursuants in the course of one scheme or course of conduct
  • Intentional murder during arson in the first degree
  • Intentional murder during the course of violating the protection order a victim issued against the defendant

Two counts of capital murder in the death of Jean Smallwood, Kristen’s mother:

  • Intentional murder committed during the course of first-degree burglary
  • Intentional murder during arson in the first degree.

Barnett answered the question “How do we know it’s murder?” by attributing gunshot wounds and stab wounds on the victims.

She said they knew it was planned by explaining the research investigators found on Henderson’s phone and showing video of him practicing with a gun only weeks prior to the killings.

Barnett then spoke on the timeline of events explaining the prosecution’s theory of how Henderson was the main perpetrator. She said he was in the house at least 20 minutes, while his alleged co-conspirator, Rhonda Carlson was inside for only four minutes. Barnett also pointed out Carlson testified that Henderson needed to burn his clothes because of blood spatter and Carlson said she remained in the same clothes all day.

Finally, Barnett said Henderson is heard on dash camera footage saying, “I’m glad you caught me when you did.”

Defense attorney Bruce Gardner then addressed the jury. His theory of events places the entire blame on Carlson, even comparing her to the fictional character Norman Bates. Gardner mentioned how Carlson admitted on the stand that the truth does not come easy to her. 

The defense attorney also talked about the clothes Carlson and Henderson were wearing the day of the killings saying Carlson could have done the murders herself and changed into identical clothing after.

Madison County DA Chief Trial Attorney Tim Gann spoke during the state’s rebuttal. He addressed Carlson’s involvement saying even if the defense’s theory proved to be true, Henderson is also guilty by helping with the crimes in any way.

Before deliberation began, Judge Comer explained the rules to the jury, went over each individual charge and the threshold that must be met to find a defendant guilty. It was a process that took two hours. Judge Comer mentioned in court it was the most time he had ever spent charging a jury before deliberation.

Also before the jury deliberated, the four alternate jurors were identified and separated from the 12 jurors who will be deciding whether or not to convict. Judge Comer told the alternates they still must follow the rules he outlined for jurors, such as not using social media or watching the news.

He also asked the alternates to stay within 15 minutes of the courthouse while the jury is deliberating since they must be in court each time the judge addresses the jury as a whole.

The jury spent all day Wednesday deliberating, but couldn’t come to a verdict.

Jurors began deliberating at 9 a.m., broke for lunch at noon, resumed deliberating at 1 p.m., and asked Comer to clarify a few things around 2 p.m., including a definition of complicity and “starting and maintaining” in regards to arson.

Later in the afternoon, they asked for an index of exhibits, but the court didn’t have one. They also asked Comer what would happen if they couldn’t reach a verdict.

Comer responded that the jury hadn’t deliberated long enough.

Jurors spent eight hours deliberating on Wednesday and about seven hours on Thursday to reach a verdict.

Court will resume Friday morning for the penalty phase, where the jury will decide if Henderson should be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole or given the death penalty.

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