A judge sentenced a former high school football player to life in prison Wednesday, telling him he had chosen to commit an evil act in killing his former coach, Ed Thomas.
Mark D. Becker, 24, will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole for gunning down Thomas at the Aplington-Parkersburg High School weight room on June 24, 2009. A jury convicted Becker of first-degree murder in March, rejecting an insanity plea. The conviction carried a mandatory life sentence.
Before formally sentencing Becker, District Court Judge Stephen Carroll told him that his actions had affected countless people. Carroll noted that Thomas, a nationally known coach, often spoke of the choices individuals made.
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"Mr. Becker, you have brought unresolved chaos to their lives, and chaos is evil," Carroll said. "Coach Thomas was right, Mr. Becker. We are free to choose, that is what makes us human.
"That freedom to choose means freedom to choose good and freedom to choose evil."
Becker was given the chance to speak but declined.
Public defender Susan Flander, one of Becker’s attorneys, said Becker will appeal the verdict.
Before Carroll handed down the sentence, members of Thomas’ family gave victim impact statements. Thomas’ oldest son, Todd, spoke first.
"Every day as you live in jail, I want you to reflect on what you stole from us," said Todd Thomas, his pregnant wife standing beside him.
Becker then gave a slight nod.
Ed Thomas’ other son, Aaron Thomas, looked at Becker as he read his statement.
"I would love for Mark to explain to my three little sons why you killed their grandfather," Aaron Thomas said. "It’s too bad you made the choices you made. You’ll never understand how much you hurt our family, nor do I think you care."
Aaron Thomas said his father allowed Becker back onto the high school football team after the then-14-year-old was caught with drugs. Aaron Thomas said he didn’t understand his father’s decision but was told, "Mark needs football more than football needs Mark."
Ed Thomas amassed a 292-84 record and two state titles in 37 seasons as a head coach — 34 of them at Aplington-Parkersburg — and coached four people who have played in the NFL. He also was a leader in rebuilding Parkersburg after nearly one-third of the 1,800-person town was wiped out in May 2008 by a tornado that killed six people.
Greg Thomas, Ed Thomas’ brother, said in court Wednesday that they grew up in a family with an alcoholic father, but that their mother’s faith helped carry them through difficult times.
"My brother had a built-in excuse for failure growing up," Greg Thomas said. "He chose not to slide down that way."
Aaron Thomas evoked the Bible several times during his statement and said Becker will have to face judgment for the murder when he dies.
"Your worst punishment is still to come," Aaron Thomas said, "when your time on Earth is over and you have to answer to God."