Judge wanted to give convicted cold case killer death but didn't

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Dothan (WTVY)-- A Houston County judge sentenced convicted murderer Nathaniel Dennis to life in prison without parole for murdering a Dothan store clerk.

Nathaniel Dennis (Source: Houston County Jail)

Judge Larry Anderson’s decision was a reluctant one. He wanted to give Dennis the death penalty but, given recent law changes, believed that sentence could create lots of issues.

No doubt, Anderson was emotionally swayed by 40 years of anguish suffered by the family of Russell Douglas.

In 1981, Douglas worked at a convenience store near Northview High School. A full time farmer, he did so to earn extra cash to care for his wife and their four children.

On a Saturday night, Douglas closed the store and was planning to head home after tidying up. He never made it.

Police say Nathaniel Dennis, now 65, shot out a window, forced his way into the store, then robbed and killed Douglas.

He left one critical piece of evidence behind; a pair of panty hose used to cover his face and a strand of hair that got caught in the nylon.

Fast forward a few decades. Dennis had moved to Virginia, where he was working at a newspaper. In 1997, police charged him with viciously assaulting a co-worker.

When he went to prison for that crime, his DNA sample was taken and police determined it matched that strand of hair left behind in Dothan.

This summer, a jury found Dennis guilty of capital murder and on Friday, Anderson sent him to prison—for life. With mixed emotions, the judge accepted that recommendation from the jury.

Alabama has a law that a judge must accept those recommendations although that law may not apply to older cases, including the one against Dennis.