But prosecutors convinced a jury that Guy Heinze Jr., 26, of Brunswick, killed all eight victims after an argument over a bottle of prescription pills.
Heinze was convicted of murder on Friday, though he was spared a death sentence in a deal attorneys made to avoid a hung jury.
"We knew the biggest challenge we were going to have was to convince them one person did this," said Glynn County Police Chief Matt Doering, whose officers investigated the slayings. Doering said four years later he's still convinced Heinze killed the victims by himself.
Lead defense attorney Newell Hamilton Jr. said Saturday that he believes the jury overlooked holes and shortcomings in a police investigation that focused early on Heinze because he was "an easy and convenient target." He said he's concerned those responsible could still be at large.
"At the end of the day, I think the citizens of Glynn County needed for someone to answer for the murders," Hamilton said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. "They needed to feel safe."
Heinze stood silently Friday while his younger brother ran cursing from the courtroom after the jury's verdict was read. The last-minute deal to withdraw the death penalty means Heinze will be sentenced to life in prison. The trial judge will decide later whether he will be eligible for parole.
"This ain't right! This ain't justice!" Heinze's younger brother, Tyler Heinze, shouted as he left the courthouse. "You know Guy can't have done this (expletive)."
Prosecutors said Heinze had been smoking crack cocaine Aug. 29, 2009, when he killed his father and the other victims. Each of the victims died from multiple crushing blows to the head from what police believe was a shotgun barrel, though the murder weapon was never found.
Although the attack happened in the middle of the night and most of the victims were found in bed, defense attorneys argued a single assailant couldn't possibly have inflicted such carnage. They insisted police ignored evidence and alternate suspects in a rush to accuse him.
During three days of deliberations, it looked like the jury could go either way in the case, or possibly find itself unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
The jury foreman reported Thursday afternoon, during the second day of deliberations, that jurors were deadlocked 9 to 3. Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett asked them to keep trying. Jurors recessed for the night after dinner with no verdict.
On Friday morning, the judge announced one of the 12 jurors had been excused and would be replaced with one of three alternates who had also sat through the full week of testimony in the case. They came back with a verdict within four hours. After it was read, Scarlett informed the jury that the death penalty had been taken off the table and therefore their service was done.
Prosecutor John B. Johnson told reporters dropping the death penalty had been necessary to get Heinze's defense team to agree to let the judge dismiss a particular juror because of "a situation" that contributed to the deadlock. He said neither side wanted a mistrial, which would have meant trying Heinze all over again with a new jury within a few months.
"It was done to get a verdict. That was the biggest hang-up both sides had," he said.
Johnson declined to say which juror was dismissed or why. The jury had been sequestered at a hotel, with no access to TVs, computers or cellphones and under constant watch by deputies, since the trial began Oct. 15. During the trial last week, Deputy Rocky Mortoriet reported to the judge that one juror had been talking about the case against the judge's orders. Mortoriet said he overheard the juror say while escorting him to the gym: "There is no way I can convict this gentleman."
Four years ago, Heinze told police he found the victims' bodies after returning from a late night away from home. During the frantic 911 call, Heinze cried: "My whole family is dead!" Six days later, investigators charged him with murder.
The dead included Heinze's father, Guy Heinze Sr., 45. Rusty Toler Sr., 44, was slain along with his four children: Chrissy Toler, 22; Russell D. Toler Jr., 20; Michael Toler, 19; and Michelle Toler, 15. Also killed was the elder Toler's sister, Brenda Gail Falagan, 49, and Joseph L. West, the 30-year-old boyfriend of Chrissy Toler. Her 3-year-old son, Byron Jimerson Jr., ended up the sole survivor but suffered severe head injuries.
Heinze told police his father went to live with the elder Toler's family when they were both teenagers. The suspect said he considered Rusty Toler Sr. to be his uncle, and the man's children were his cousins.