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Vernon Dale Garner is an aspiring minister, good father and talented worker, a jury was told Tuesday in a hearing to decide whether Garner will receive the death sentence or life in prison for the murder of his girlfriend.

Garner, 36, of Graham, was convicted Friday of first-degree murder and six other charges stemming from the April 15 shooting death of Debra Mills Brown outside a mobile home on N.C. 87 south of Graham.The jury is scheduled to hear closing arguments this morning in Alamance County Superior Court.

In the three-hour sentencing hearing, Garner's lawyers presented 19 witnesses - including Garner - who testified about Garner's love for his family, his work as a carpenter and auto mechanic and his newfound devotion to God since his arrest for murder.``I just ask that all of you search your hearts and you spare my life, where I can help someone else so they don't make these mistakes,' Garner told the jury.

Garner said he leads other inmates in a nightly Bible study at the Alamance County Jail, where he has been held since his arrest on the day of the murder. He said he attends worship services at the jail, sings hymns and has completed 14 Bible college correspondence courses in an effort to become a minister.

He said he is ``very sorry' about Brown's murder and accepts responsibility for her death. Last week, Garner testified that he shot Brown accidentally during an argument when Brown grabbed his .410-gauge shotgun. Prosecutors said Garner killed Brown when she tried to break off their 7 1/2-year romance.

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Larry Lambeth, pastor of Harvest Baptist Church in Burlington, said Garner has a chance of becoming an ordained minister if the jury sentences him to life in prison.

``To the best of my knowledge, Vernon is sincere and honest in his relationship with the Lord,' said Lambeth, who has visited Garner in jail. ``If not, he certainly has me fooled.'

Keith Phillips, in jail awaiting trial on a murder charge, testified that Garner is ``like the minister' during the Bible studies.

Garner's stepdaughter, Wendy Jennings, 23, of Efland, said Garner was a good father.

``Vernon was the only dad I ever knowed,' Jennings said tearfully. ``He taught me what a father should have taught a daughter. I'm just glad that I had him for a father.'

Nellie Way testified that Garner pounded down the door of a burning mobile home and pulled her son to safety six years ago.

``I have all thanks for Mr. Garner,' said Way, whose son died 16 days after the rescue.

Garner said he served about six months in prison in 1979 after he was convicted of driving without a license. A parole officer said Garner also served six months in prison in 1983 for failing to stop for an accident.


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