Auburn Shootings

Desmonte Leonard points to family members as he leave the courtroom after a jury found him guilty of capital murder, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, in Opelika, Ala., in the killing two former Auburn University football players and a third man. (AP Photo/Opelika-Auburn News, Todd J. Van Emst)

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama man was convicted of capital murder Tuesday in the shooting deaths of two former Auburn University football players and a third man, with a jury rejecting claims that he fired in self-defense under Alabama’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

Jurors returned the verdict against 24-year-old Desmonte Leonard after nearly five hours of deliberations.

The capital charge carries a possible death sentence, but life without parole also is possible.

Circuit Judge Jacob A. Walker III told jurors to return Wednesday for a sentencing phase that could include additional evidence. Jurors will recommend a sentence of life or death and the judge will make the final decision.

Leonard didn’t have any visible reaction to the verdict, but a female relative left the courtroom crying.

“He’s facing the death penalty so you can imagine his spirits aren’t very high,” said defense attorney Susan James.

Prosecutors declined comment after the verdict. Relatives of the victims held hands and nodded in agreement as the guilty verdict was read.

Ladarious Phillips, Ed Christian and DeMario Pitts.

The Montgomery man was charged with fatally shooting ex-Auburn players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips at party in Auburn in June 2012. DeMario Pitts of Opelika also was slain, and three other people were wounded.

Jurors also convicted Leonard of assault and attempted murder, but he was acquitted of one count of attempted murder.

The panel rejected Leonard’s claim that he opened fire after coming under attack at the party, held at an apartment complex a few miles from campus. They asked for a legal definition of self-defense and Alabama’s “Stand Your Ground” law before convicting Leonard a few minutes later.

Prosecutors said Leonard deliberately killed the men after a fight broke out between his friends and other partygoers.

Leonard’s attorneys did not dispute that he fired the fatal shots, but they said he pulled out a gun to protect himself and was particularly susceptible to threats because of the psychological effects of being shot in the abdomen in 2008.

“This case wasn’t a whodunnit. He got on the stand and said he was sorry about it,” James said. James told jurors in closing arguments Monday that Leonard was on the ground being kicked when he pulled a gun and randomly fired in order to escape.

Lee County District Attorney Robert T. Treese said witnesses testified that Leonard was not involved in the fight and was never in danger.

Prosecutors said Leonard fired a .40-caliber handgun at least nine times. The men who died were each shot two times.

Leonard surrendered to authorities following a manhunt that included Montgomery police searching a house where they mistakenly believed he was hiding. He has been held without bond ever since.