TAMPA — Kenneth Young came to court Wednesday with four life sentences he got for a string of armed robberies he committed in 2000 when he was 14 and 15 years old.
Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that juveniles can't be given life sentences unless they murder, Young hoped to leave court a free man.
Now 26, Young has served 11 years. He is one of 77 Florida inmates sentenced to life as juveniles for whom the ruling has meant a second chance.
Young was convicted of four armed robberies in Hillsborough County and two in Pinellas County. He was charged with two more in Georgia, but after he got four life sentences here, Georgia didn't bother to prosecute.
"He's not the same person today," his attorney, Paolo Annino, said Wednesday.
Annino portrayed Young as a gullible kid 11 years ago, who believed his accomplice — a 24-year-old crack dealer named Jacques Bethea — would harm his mother if he didn't join in the robberies.
Since going to prison, Young has been in trouble only once — for not making his bed. "He wants to be a barber," Annino said. "He wants to take his mother to church on Sunday."
As two of his victims listened, Young read a statement, saying, "I am not a monster. I take full responsibility. I want to apologize."
But prosecutor Jill Hamel said Young lies about his crimes. Young now says his accomplice, who is also serving a life sentence, threatened to harm his mother, but when arrested he made no mention of threats.
"He's going to say whatever it takes to look better," Hamel said.
In court, the two victims each described Young as an eager participant. Young and Bethea passed a .38 revolver back and forth.
Sandra Christopher was accosted at night while using a borrowed Tampa bank office to prep students for standardized tests. She and a student were forced to lie on the ground. The robbers thought they were bank employees and demanded that they open the safe.
"They said they were going to shoot my a--," she said.
Young told the student on the floor, "I'm going to kill you right now, b----."
Both women were kicked as they lay on the ground. Christopher's dress was yanked up to her waist.
"I was more mad than anything," Christopher said. "I wanted to say, 'I don't freaking work in a bank. I work for a test-prep company. Get the wax out of your ears.' "
But afterward, she felt afraid to teach night classes and had to get counseling. "I'm not ready to have him walking around," she said. "I think he should stay where he is."
The second victim, Ryan Pratt, was accosted at a downtown hotel, where he worked as a night audit supervisor. The robbers held a gun at his head and kicked him, ordering him to open the safe.
He told them he didn't have the combination and suggested they just take the safe — it was small. They carried it as far as the lobby and left it.
He said he didn't want Young to go free, either.
Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet told Young he was on track to kill before he was caught. The judge said his actions were calculated and sophisticated.
"You had a gun. You crossed the line."
Sleet said he was happy that Young was a model prisoner, but he wasn't going to reward him for doing what he was supposed to do.
If he let him go free, Sleet said, "I might as well give you the key to the city and a parade. I'm listening to these victims."
Sleet then gave Young a 30-year sentence. Since he has already served 11 years, Young could go free in his 40s.
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.