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Woman receives life sentence for murder

Vuzhuan Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting her stepfather in the head as he slept.

The life of a St. Petersburg woman convicted of killing her stepfather was spared Friday when a judge followed a jury's recommendation and sentenced her to life in prison.

The jury voted 7-5 to recommend a life term for Vuzhuan Johnson, rejecting a call by prosecutors to send her to Florida's electric chair.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico said he could only disregard a jury's recommendation in rare circumstances. He immediately sentenced the 27-year-old to life for her first-degree murder conviction.

Jurors deliberated just over an hour in deciding on the life term for Johnson, who prosecutors said shot to death her stepfather, Abraham Dowdell, 50.

Defense attorney Richard Watts told jurors that the death penalty was reserved for the most hideous crimes. And Dowdell's murder, while a tragedy, did not fit that definition, he said.

"All killings are ugly," Watts said. "All homicides are bad. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination the worst."

Johnson stared straight ahead without expression as a court clerk announced the jury's decision.

Prosecutors Joe Bulone and Rob Dittmer told jurors during the trial that Johnson shot Dowdell once in the head as he slept to steal up to $250 from him and because he did not approve of her lesbian lifestyle. She lived in the same home as her stepfather at 4650 Eighth Ave. S.

Johnson confessed to the murder at least three times, including a confession made in a letter written to State Attorney Bernie McCabe as she awaited trial at the Pinellas County Jail.

Johnson testified that she fabricated her confessions. She said she admitted to a crime she did not commit because she hoped her cooperation would lead to a lesser sentence and help her avoid the death penalty.

Johnson blamed a friend who wanted money for drugs for the shooting.

"I wish they still had the firing squad and turned it over to the family," John Dowdell, the victim's brother, told Federico. "Don't let her get away with this, your honor. Don't disappoint me."