MANATEE -- A grand jury indicted Andres Avalos Jr. on three counts of first-degree murder Tuesday for the Dec. 4 slayings of his wife and two other people, according to the State Attorney's Office.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Avalos, 33, could face the death penalty.
Prosecutors will have 45 days after his arraignment to determine whether to pursue the death penalty, according to Assistant State Attorney Art Brown.
The grand jury met for two and half hours before handing up the indictments Tuesday morning, Brown said.
Avalos was initially charged with three counts of second-degree murder, which carry a maximum sentence of 30 years to life in prison.
Investigators say Avalos hanged his wife from a cord in the laundry room of their northwest Bradenton home, then beat and shot her. He also gunned down his neighbor, Denise Potter, 46, who apparently was visiting at his home, investigators said.
After the attacks, investigators say he dropped his 4-year-old son off at daycare and went to the Walmart on State Road 64 where he left his vehicle. Avalos then took a taxi to Bayshore Baptist Church, 6502 14th St. W., where investigators and witnesses say he shot and killed the Rev. James "Tripp" Battle, 31.
Avalos was arrested Dec. 6 after a 51-hour manhunt led by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and a public plea from his father to turn himself in for the sake of his six children, who were being held in a safe house until his capture. He was arrested in a mobile home park less than two blocks from Bayshore Baptist Church.
After his arrest, Avalos admitted to the slayings, Brown said at his first court hearing Dec. 6. Avalos is being held without bond at the Manatee County jail.
"I don't want him to die," Potter's sister, Darcie Smith said Tuesday. "I want him to live a long and miserable life in prison."
The family of Amber Avalos did not return calls for comment and Battle's family declined comment.
To convict Avalos of first-degree murder the state will have to prove beyond reasonable doubt the killings of Amber Avalos, Potter and Battle were premeditated. In Florida, a grand jury must indict the suspect on first-degree murder.
The public defender's office has entered a plea of not guilty for Avalos.
However, since investigators say they have a confession from Avalos as well as eyewitnesses to the crime, and he now faces the possibility of the death penalty, the defense could shift from trying to prove reasonable doubt, according to criminal defense attorney Mathew Whyte, if the defense believes evidence will prove the defendant committed the murders.
"The focus of the defense may very well turn to trying to convince the jury that it was second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder, or that life is a more appropriate sentence than death," Whyte said. "For example, there might be evidence that the accused was suffering from some sort of mental disease or defect at the time of the crime, which may or may not rise to the level of legal insanity."
If the state pursues the death penalty, the likelihood of a jury recommending and the court imposing it will be based on how egregious the facts of the case are, according to Whyte.
The court must consider a number of aggravating and mitigating factors, statutory and non-statutory, Whyte said. Statutory aggravating factors include whether the murder was:
Especially heinous, atrocious or cruel;
Committed after substantial planning and premeditation;
Committed in a cold, calculated and pre-meditated manner without any moral or legal justification; and
Committed by a criminal gang member.
Statutory mitigating factors a court would consider include whether the murder was committed while:
The defendant was under extreme mental or emotional disturbance;
The defendant was unable to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or conform his conduct to the law was substantially impaired, and;
The existence of any other factors in the defendant's background would mitigate against the imposition of the death penalty.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.