Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Trial gets started for teen in Sarasota in killing of two British tourists

SARASOTA — Jurors in the trial of a Florida teen accused of killing two British tourists saw photos of the dead victims during the first day of court testimony on Thursday.

Shawn Tyson, 17, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Defense attorneys have said there was no evidence tying him to the crime and that witnesses testifying against him were not credible.

Attorneys selected a jury of nine women and five men Wednesday, and opening statements began Thursday morning. By midafternoon, prosecutors had already called eight witnesses, including several crime scene technicians who recounted taking photos of the young men's bodies and finding .22 caliber shells buried in the dirt near the crime scene.

Jurors sat grim-faced as the photos — which depicted the men splayed on the grass of a housing project — were shown.

Tyson is being held at the Sarasota County Jail without bail. If convicted, he faces life in prison — because he is 17, he cannot face the death penalty.

Authorities say Tyson shot and killed British tourists James Kouzaris, 24, and James Cooper, 25, last April.

The two men were dining and drinking in downtown Sarasota with Cooper's parents the night of April 15. The entire party was staying at a Longboat Key beach condo; Cooper's parents went back to the condo in a car and urged the two young men to take a cab back home.

The pair went to two bars and left on foot after several drinks. Shortly before 3 a.m., they ended up in a crime-ridden neighborhood more than a mile from downtown Sarasota. It's unclear why the men ended up in the area. Witnesses said they saw Cooper and Kouzaris walking shirtless and stumbling through the neighborhood — and that they were being followed by two black men, one with a red bandanna around part of his face.

Prosecutor Ed Brodsky said Tyson told a friend that the men were lost and that he then tried to rob them. The tourists told Tyson they didn't have any money and pleaded for their lives.

Brodsky said Tyson told his friend: "Since you ain't got no money, then I have something for your a—."

The tourists' bodies were found shirtless on the street. Both men still had their wallets and did in fact have money; Cooper also had a cellphone and camera in his pants pocket. Authorities later found that Kouzaris' blood alcohol level was 0.243 and Cooper's was 0.214 — well past Florida's level at which a driver is presumed impaired, which is 0.08.

Prosecutors say they will call an expert who found Tyson's DNA on one of the victims' clothing.

Defense attorney Carolyn Schlemmer said during her opening statement that there is nothing to tie Tyson to the shootings — no murder weapon was ever recovered. She added that many of the people slated to testify against Tyson were either pressured by authorities, made deals with authorities in exchange for information on Tyson, or were unreliable drug users and convicted felons. Other witnesses lied to law enforcement, Schlemmer said.

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