Tampa judge acquits suspects in fatal I-4 shooting that killed teen

The ruling came after two eyewitnesses refused to testify in the trial of Jarkese and Jaris Youngblood.
The Lady Justice sculpture stands in front of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in downtown Tampa.
The Lady Justice sculpture stands in front of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in downtown Tampa. [ TIMES (2017) ]
Published Sept. 2, 2021|Updated Sept. 3, 2021

TAMPA — Days after two men went to trial on murder charges related to the shooting last year of a Tampa teenager, a judge granted a request from defense lawyers that both be found not guilty.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella granted a motion for judgment of acquittal for Jarkese and Jaris Youngblood, shortly after state prosecutors finished presenting their case Thursday to a jury.

Defense lawyers routinely ask judges to acquit their clients in trial after the state has finished presenting its case. But such requests are typically a formality done for appellate purposes and are rarely granted.

For the Youngbloods, the difference came with two eyewitnesses who refused to testify at trial, according to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office. Without their testimony, the prosecution’s case crumbled.

“We anticipated having testimony from both those eyewitnesses and in the end neither of them took the stand,” said Grayson Kamm, a spokesman for the office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. “It really highlights the reality out there that if people don’t trust law enforcement or they’re really worried about retaliation, it blocks us from keeping the public safe.”

Jarkese, 23, and Jaris Youngblood, 21, who are brothers, had been charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 24, 2020, death of Ta’Zion “Bibby” Levison, 17, who was shot while riding in a car on I-4 near Branch Forbes Road in Plant City.

Drivers called 911 that afternoon to report that someone in a gold Ford Taurus was shooting out a window at another vehicle in the interstate’s eastbound lanes. Levison, who was a passenger with two friends in a blue Nissan Sentra, was shot in his upper torso. His friends drove him to South Florida Baptist Hospital, where he died.

Another driver got a number from a temporary tag on the back of the Taurus, which investigators later linked to the Youngbloods.

Related: Three accused in I-4 shooting that killed 17-year-old

At the time of their arrests last year, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister described the shooting as being the result of “some type of beef” between the brothers and the victim.

Sha’Quandra Williams, who authorities described as Jarkese Youngblood’s girlfriend, was also charged with murder. Investigators said she was in the Taurus’ front passenger seat with her one-year-old son in her lap while her boyfriend’s brother fired a gun from a rear passenger window.

She was one of the two witnesses who refused to testify.

Refusing to testify can land a person in jail for contempt of court, but in Williams’ case, prosecutors said she is protected by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the government from compelling a person to be a witness against themselves.

Williams remains charged with murder. It was not immediately clear how the case against her might be impacted.

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The other witness who declined to testify was a passenger in the same car with Levison. Although prosecutors had worked to try to make him comfortable testifying, he expressed fear of retaliation.

“He’s legitimately afraid,” said Kamm, the state attorney’s spokesman. “He’s done nothing wrong.”

Prosecutors had spent the better part of two days presenting their case to a jury before Assistant Public Defender Donna Perry and Tampa attorney Justin Petredis successfully argued for the judgment of acquittal. They argued at trial that the pair were innocent.

The brothers, who had been jailed since their arrests, were expected to be released late Thursday.