TAMPA — The victim was 13, liked to play video games and looked up to his older brother and the kids who hung around him in their East Tampa neighborhood.
The defendant was 16 when he was arrested — a kid whose parents struggled to get him help for behavioral problems, who had difficulties in school, and who knew what it felt like to be the victim of gun violence.
On Friday, Ja’Marion Strange sat slumped in a red jail uniform at a defense table as lawyers, a doctor, a judge and his parents talked about the kind of kid he was and whether he might someday be able to rejoin society.
After more than two hours of testimony and arguments, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward sentenced Strange to 45 years in prison for the murder of 13-year-old Ty’Quahn Johnson.
It was a crime that, but for his youth, would have netted Strange, now 18, a life sentence. But the law treats juveniles differently. Because science has shown their brains aren’t fully developed, they are considered less capable of appreciating consequences.
“This is the epitome of reckless, juvenile behavior,” Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley argued to the judge.
State prosecutors pushed for a 50-year sentence, countering that despite his problems, Strange still knew right from wrong.
“He is a danger to society,” said Assistant State Attorney Dawn Hart.
The crime occurred on a Tuesday afternoon, two days before Thanksgiving 2021.
Surveillance videos captured what happened as a group of people stood on the sidewalk near the edge of a parking lot outside the Lee Davis Community Resource Center in Tampa’s V.M. Ybor neighborhood. A black sedan pulled into the lot and rolled near the crowd. The car quickly backed up, facing south, and stopped.
In the videos, people can be seen running away as gunfire erupts.
One of them fell. He was Ty’Quahn Johnson. He had been shot in the head.
The car drove off immediately after the shooting. As police swarmed the area, officers were told that the shooter was believed to be a young man who went by the name “J-Dot.”
Detectives determined that J-Dot was a nickname for Ja’Marion Strange. They found an Instagram page that belonged to him. It included videos that appeared to show him sitting inside a car similar to the one involved in the shooting, according to an arrest report. In the videos, Strange wielded a pistol.
Near Strange’s grandmother’s home, police found an abandoned, stolen Kia Forte. They found his fingerprints on the car. Two live 9 mm rounds were found beneath a rear seat cushion. A 9 mm bullet shell casing lay on the driver’s side floorboard. Forensic analysis of the spent casing deemed it a match to the casing police found at the crime scene, indicating it was fired from the same gun.
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The crime was described in court records and testimony as the culmination of an escalating feud between Strange and Ty’Quahn Johnson’s older brother, Antwan.
A couple of months earlier, Antwan Johnson had confronted Strange about a shooting that occurred near his family’s home, according to court records. He told him not to come around their home anymore because his younger siblings also lived there.
A couple of weeks before the fatal shooting, Antwan and his other brother, Keyshon Johnson, reported that Strange pulled a gun on Keyshon at a food store near their home, spurring a fight, records state. Later the same day, someone fired several gunshots into the Johnson family’s home.
Antwan Johnson was present on the day his brother was killed. It is believed that he was the intended target of the shooting, lawyers said in court.
A jury last month convicted Strange, now 18, of first-degree murder in Ty’Quahn Johnson’s death.
As he faced sentencing, his defense presented testimony from a psychological expert, Ellen Suarez-Pinzas, who gave a detailed assessment of Strange. He scored low on intelligence tests. Records noted a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, along with oppositional defiant disorder and mood problems.
His mother, Tarshemia Martin, said she noticed early on that he was different from her other children. He had trouble completing more than one task at a time. In school, he struggled with reading, following directions and getting along with other kids. His mother took him for treatment at Gracepoint Wellness, where he was given medication to control his behavior.
She did what she could to help him. But it was hard, she said, raising a child in a place where fights and shootings are common. Her family’s home once had been the target of a drive-by shooting. She recalled getting a phone call one day months later from her son.
“Mom, I’ve just been shot,” he told her.
Wounded through the thigh, he struggled with flashbacks. It was unclear if anyone was arrested for the shooting.
“I know my son,” said his father, Jamal Strange. “He ain’t out to hurt nobody.”
Then there was the victim’s family.
Clarareather Johnson said that since her son’s death, her family has broken apart. She hasn’t celebrated Thanksgiving in two years.
“I am a mother, and he has a mother,” she said. “The only difference is I have to go see Ty’Quahn in a graveyard, and they can still see their son.”
By law, because Strange was a juvenile when the crime occurred, the judge was required to consider a list of factors in crafting an appropriate sentence. They included his age, his maturity, his intelligence and whether he might be rehabilitated. They also included the nature and circumstances of the crime.
Ward commended Strange’s parents for doing what they could to help him. She opined that he has the potential to someday return as a productive member of society.
“Woe to you if you don’t,” she told him. “Because that would be a direct slap to your parents.”
The law required a minimum sentence of 40 years, but Strange can have his case reviewed after 25 years.