Judge Brooks Hagler sentenced 55-year-old Eddie Joe Sutton to life behind bars after a jury found him guilty of the 2004 murder of 26-year-old Michael Brandon Bates.
Sutton testified Thursday that he can Bates struggled over a gun when it went off, killing him. He said he hid the body in a remote area near Lake Fort Phantom Hill, where prosecutors found it in November 2010.
Prosecutors presented a different story, claiming Sutton was hired by Abilene businessman George Gibson of Gibson Motors to kill Bates because he had stolen drugs from him. Gibson died in September when a train crashed into his car near downtown Abilene.
The jury came back with the guilty verdict after an hour and a half of deliberating.
As Sutton left the Jones County courthouse Thursday night, Bates' family members said the verdict and sentencing finally brings some closure.
"This was a really long time coming. We'd been worried about what happened to Brandon for many years," said Bill deTournillon, Bates' uncle.
The anguish Bates' murder caused his family was one of two reasons Judge Hagler gave for handing down the life sentence. He cited the other as the fact that Sutton was a convicted felon and bought the gun with the intent to commit an armed robbery.
"He was planning to rob Roscoe State Bank. And in the midst of this, all he did was kill Brandon in the meantime," deTournillon said.
Bates' family watched as the verdict and sentence were handed down. Before the jury went to deliberate, his uncle stood up and told Sutton he forgave him for killing his nephew.
"For us to not forgive him would've allowed us to harbor all kinds of animosity and ill will, and kind of let him win," he said.
After seven long years of waiting, the victim's relatives said he can finally rest in peace.
"Our family needed this closure. We've gotten that, so from this point forward, we're going to go forward," deTournillon said.
Sutton is at the Jones County Jail, where he'll stay for the next 30 days at the request of his attorney. He has been convicted for several bank robberies in the area and still has a bank robbery case pending in Louisiana.