WILLIAMSON COUNTY (Georgetown) -- People filled a Williamson County courtroom Thursday morning, expecting the start of the sentencing trial for convicted murderer Fred Yazdi.
The family of Enrique Recio brace themselves for another emotional day in court. The 23-year old Texas State student was shot to death last February after crashing his car in the Avery Ranch neighborhood and, at some point, running into Yazdi's front yard.
As the jury box sat empty, one of Yazdi's attorneys went back and forth from the judge's chambers to talk with Yazdi. An hour after the hearing was set to start, with the jurors still outside the courtroom, Judge Bert Richardson made an unexpected announcement.
"I have been advised by both parties that the defendant has signed a change of election for punishment," said Richardson.
The change of election means Yazdi waived his right to let the jury decide his sentence, putting the ball in the judge's court.
"Have you had the opportunity to talk to both of your lawyers about this decision," Richardson asked Yazdi.
"Yes sir," Yazdi replied, wiping tears from his eyes.
The judge explained that by waiving the jury sentencing, Yazdi also waived the chance to argue he committed the lesser charge of second degree murder under sudden passion. That's the argument that someone committed murder in the heat of the moment, without having time to think. The charge carries a lesser punishment of two to 20 years in prison.
"You understand that if you waive that then the punishment range on this will be anywhere from five years to 99 years or life," Richardson asked Yazdi.
"Yes sir," he replied, weeping.
Yazdi's attorney Keith Hampton says during the 20 hours the jury deliberated, the option to waive a jury sentencing came up in the interest of time and scheduling conflicts.
"You had a juror going on a cruise, you had a judge [going out of town] for Friday, you had one of the lawyers with this huge thing that is happening Friday," Hampton explained.
Both sides agreed that since the judge was already familiar with the case, they would allow him to decide punishment so that a hearing expected to take two weeks will take two days.
And while both sides believe the judge is fair, there's no way to know how he will rule.
"The prosecution is betting that he could be harsher and we're hoping that he will be at the other end. But I'll tell you this, we both agree, the reason both sides agree to let this judge make this decision is he's smart, he's been fair to both of us, he's experienced and when he renders his decision, it will be based on the evidence," said Hampton.
Yazdi now faces five to 99 years of life in prison, but Hampton says the judge can still consider the sudden passion argument on his own.
"With the removal of the jury, the judge can already take into account sudden passion. He's heard all of the evidence that the jury heard, he knows even additional information that the lawyers know and he can take all of that into account," said Hampton.
The sentencing hearing will start Thursday, October 31st. The state is expected to call several witnesses, including a neighbor who Yazdi allegedly pulled a gun on, and show evidence that he harassed witnesses.
Yazdi and his wife are also expected to testify and tell their side of the story about what happened that night.