A 24-year-old Pasco County man who told authorities he wanted to know what it was like to kill someone has been sentenced to life in prison for intentionally running over a 75-year-old man he didn’t know — killing him.
Justyn Pennell pleaded no contest Monday to a charge of first-degree premeditated homicide in the Jan. 9, 2020, death of Michael Pratt, a Vietnam veteran and grandfather. A no-contest plea means a defendant is not admitting guilt but will not put on a defense.
At his sentencing hearing Wednesday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Mary Handsel adjudicated Pennell guilty. In a video from Court TV, Pennell is seen standing with his head down while Handsel handed down the life sentence.
“This is a tragedy that is felt by both families today,” Handsel said. “What you did was a lifetime sentence to yourself, your mother, your sister and to the Pratt family.”
During a Jan. 10, 2020, news conference, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said Pennell was running errands in his Chrysler PT Cruiser, when he saw Pratt walking on Aripeka Road, near Old Dixie Highway, around 2:45 p.m. According to detectives, Pennell told them he decided that was his chance to kill a random person — something he’d been wanting to do for months.
Pennell drove past Pratt, did a U-turn and headed straight at him. Pratt tried to get out of his path, but Pennell’s vehicle struck the 75-year-old and he died at the scene, Nocco said.
Damage to the PT Cruiser forced Pennell to pull over a quarter-mile from the scene, and he then called 911 and confessed, according to an arrest report.
Nocco said Pennell repeated his confession to deputies both at the scene and in interviews. According to the arrest report, Pennell said he smiled and laughed when he saw the look of fear on Pratt’s face.
Nocco called Pennell “pure evil” during a media conference held the day after Pratt’s death, during which he also said deputies did not think the two men knew each other.
Bryan Sarabia, a prosecutor with the Sixth Judicial Circuit, said his office had decided not to pursue the death penalty. Had the case gone to trial, prosecutors would have sought life in prison without parole — the same sentence Pennell received Wednesday.
On Pennell’s plea form, he said he had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“I understand what you’ve grown up with, all of us probably have people in our lives … that deal with the types of mental illness, if you want to call it, that you have,” Handsel said. “However, you had family, and family that was working with you. I know that your mom and your sister both said there wasn’t anything out there. But we both know there was.”
Handsel thanked Pennell for forgoing a trial, saying she had read the transcripts from both his 911 call and his statements to police. She said it would have been one of the most difficult cases for the families involved to hear.
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“I can only imagine what it would have been, if we heard it live,” Handsel said. “Your voice, saying these words that were, as the doctor put, callous, without remorse.”
Pennell apologized to Pratt’s family for the first time this week, Handsel said.
The state attorney’s office did not enter into a plea agreement with Pennell, Sarabia said Wednesday in a phone call. Prosecutors had been unsure about how he would plead in court Monday, he said, and they had been prepared for trial.
A call to William Pura, who is listed as Pennell’s public defender in court records, was not returned Wednesday.