JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After a jury convicted Johnathan Quiles of first-degree murder in the 2018 death of his pregnant 16-year-old niece, the trial now moves to the penalty phase and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Following about an hour of deliberations Thursday evening, the jury found Quiles guilty of the murder and sexual battery of Iyana Sawyer and the murder of her unborn child.
Sawyer, who was Quiles’ niece by marriage, was five months pregnant when she disappeared in December 2018. The prosecution claimed the child Sawyer was carrying was Quiles’.
Quiles now faces the death penalty and a 2023 ruling in Florida now allows a death sentence with only an 8 to 4 recommendation by the jury.
Quiles was back in court for a status conference on Friday. While he sat in the courtroom, his legs were shaking, he slouched over in his chair, wiped his face a few times and would occasionally lean over and speak to this attorney.
The judge and his attorneys reviewed the aggravating factors jurors will consider in recommending life or death.
Attorney Gene Nichols said the jury only has to agree on one.
“What those factors are, is there has to be proof that a crime was committed a death penalty crime to become eligible for the death penalty, that the crime was committed in a certain way or for certain reasons,” Nichols said. “There was a tremendous amount of circumstantial evidence that the State Attorney’s Office was able to use to establish the stories that he had been telling about where he was and where he was not, was not factually correct, knowing as well that we were able to establish a sexual relationship between the two of them, the judge made a determination that enough evidence was presented to allow the jurors to hear the admission.”
Defense attorneys said they plan to call a doctor to the stand, likely speaking to Quiles’s mental health.
If the state attorney’s office proves one of the aggravating factors, they would need a unanimous vote on the facts.
The penalty phase starts at 10 a.m. on Monday.
The judge said the goal is to have both sides close Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning to give the jury all day to decide.
The verdict came on the sixth day of a trial that included emotional testimony and an avalanche of evidence against Quiles, including testimony from his own brother and a jail informant that Quiles confessed the crime to them and a two-hour recording made by a pair of jail informants.
According to testimony from prosecution witnesses, Quiles admitted that Sawyer, who was last seen on surveillance video at Terry Parker High School on Dec. 19, 2018, met him at Ace Pick-A-Part, where he worked, because he’d told her they were going to run away together.
While Sawyer was sitting in a car in a back part of the property, Quiles tried to strangle her, but when he couldn’t, he shot her in the chest and then used a carpet to wrap her body and put it in a dumpster that he knew would be emptied that day and taken to a landfill, the witnesses said.
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According to testimony, Quiles had planned the murder for months because he believed he would lose his family if Sawyer had the baby. Quiles’ then-wife, Sawyer’s aunt, was pregnant at the same time as Sawyer in 2018.
In the jailhouse wire recording, Quiles and two other inmates can be heard talking about the landfill where trucks from Quiles’ work would dump their containers, about Quiles’ brother calling the police and about the sexual relationship Quiles had with Sawyer.
In the recording, Quiles described using a 9mm gun, one he said he shot at a gun range the same day Sawyer disappeared and dumped Sawyer and her backpack separately.
Investigators spent 16 days looking through more than 5,000 tons of trash at the Otis Road Landfill. The search turned up items related to the case, but no human remains. No trace of Sawyer has ever been found.
Because Sawyer’s body was never found and there was no blood or crime scene, Quiles’ defense argued that the state didn’t have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Quiles murdered his niece, or that she was dead at all.
The jury disagreed, convicting Quiles of the murder of both her and her unborn baby, who family members said was going to be named Hazel Michelle Mobley.
Several of Sawyer’s family members took the stand during the trial, including her mother, her grandmother, her aunt and her sister. They testified to the inappropriate relationship they saw between Sawyer and Quiles.
Her sister, referred to in court as S.S., testified that she was also sexually abused by Quiles when she was 13 years old.
On the stand, she said that Sawyer was in love with Quiles and that he was the father of Sawyer’s baby. She said she kept the secret about her sister and Quiles for at least two years to keep a good relationship with her sister and to protect her.
She said Quiles wanted Sawyer to get an abortion, but her sister refused.
RELATED: Sister of Iyana Sawyer says she knew about relationship between sister, accused killer but kept it a secret | Detective in Johnathan Quiles case reads defendant’s texts from brother, Snapchat messages with victim
A Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detective took the stand during the trial and read disturbing text messages and Snapchat messages between Quiles and Sawyer. He said it was the details in their messages that led him to believe Sawyer and Quiles were in a relationship, but the missing persons case turned into a homicide case after JSO got a call from Quiles’ brother, who recounted Quiles’ confession to him.
After five days of prosecution testimony, the defense called three witnesses Thursday. Quiles did not testify in his own defense.
Sawyer’s family released a statement after the verdict, through their attorney John Phillips.
“Today, a nearly five-year nightmare ends with another measure of justice,” the family said. “We thank the jury, law enforcement and judge, as well as all of our friends and family who reached out when we needed it most. Johnathan Quiles has now been found guilty of murder and will go back before a jury to determine his fate on earth, but he chose to end Iyana’s young life. He was a predator and the jury saw that with ease. We are grateful. Please keep our family in your prayers.”
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https://www.news4jax.com/news/local/2023/09/22/after-guilty-verdict-man-who-killed-pregnant-16-year-old-niece-now-faces-death-penalty-phase/ After guilty verdict, man who killed pregnant 16-year-old niece now faces death penalty phase