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Death penalty looms as veteran stands trial in slayings of girlfriend, son

Tyrone Johnson is accused of shooting to death his girlfriend and her 10-year-old son in their Hillsborough apartment.
 
Tyrone Johnson, left, with assistant public defender Donna Perry, is standing trial in the 2018 shooting deaths of his girlfriend, Stephanie Willis, and her 10-year-old son, Ricky Willis.
Tyrone Johnson, left, with assistant public defender Donna Perry, is standing trial in the 2018 shooting deaths of his girlfriend, Stephanie Willis, and her 10-year-old son, Ricky Willis. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 4, 2021

TAMPA — Jurors in one Tampa courtroom this week were confronted with a question that few ever have to consider: Could they sentence someone to die?

It came in the case of a man few had heard of, accused of committing a crime so severe that it warrants the harshest penalty allowed under Florida law.

The defendant is Tyrone Terell Johnson. The pool of more than 100 jurors was told little about him beyond the crime.

They were told only that Johnson, a military veteran, is charged with the murders of his girlfriend and her 10-year-old son. They were told that he faces the death penalty, but only in the boy’s death.

They were brought into Tampa’s largest courtroom in groups of 30, packing a set of long wooden benches.

Seated at a defense table flanked by a team of public defenders, Johnson has said little through the three days of jury selection. His face concealed by a mask, he gazed at the prospective panelists and occasionally jotted notes.

The story of what happened has yet to be fully told. But court records offer a sketch of what a jury will hear.

Stephanie and Ricky Willis were shot to death in 2018 at their Tampa apartment.  Tyrone Johnson is standing trial in their deaths.
Stephanie and Ricky Willis were shot to death in 2018 at their Tampa apartment. Tyrone Johnson is standing trial in their deaths.
Related: Family of slain woman, boy says she was likely leaving boyfriend

The case began with a 911 call Johnson made in the early evening of Oct. 21, 2018. He told a call taker that his girlfriend and her son were dead.

“They were attacking me,” he said, according to court records.

Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies arrived just before 7 p.m. at the Mariner’s Cove Apartments, off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard east of Tampa. In the apartment where Johnson lived, they found Stephanie Willis and her 10-year-old son, Ricky “Ryon” Willis. Both had been shot to death.

Later, in an interrogation room, Johnson gave a version of what happened. He said an argument started after he changed a TV channel to watch a football game. He moved to a master bedroom to begin packing his clothing to leave. As he did so, he said, his girlfriend berated him. She began to “tussle” him at his back, he said.

Johnson, who has trouble walking due to a previous foot injury, said he was knocked off a knee roller he used to move around. He claimed the boy accused him of hitting his mother.

Johnson, according to court records, said he picked up a Glock 22 .40-caliber handgun and began to fire at his girlfriend. At some point, he fired at the boy, too, court records state.

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Johnson claimed the shooting happened in the master bedroom. But investigators said there was evidence of gunfire in the boy’s bedroom. There was blood underneath the boy’s bed.

Ricky Willis was shot six times, according to state child abuse records. Johnson is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in his death. He’s accused of second-degree murder in the death of the boy’s mother.

Prosecutors must first demonstrate that Johnson is guilty before a jury can consider a death sentence. But their views on capital punishment were the early focus. Some already had strong opinions.

“I would not be able to do that at all,” said one woman. “It makes me uncomfortable even thinking about it.”

“I have a strong opinion that the guy is guilty when it involves a woman and a child,” said one man. “I don’t think I could be very fair about that.”

“Whether it’s a 90-year-old man or a 10-year-old child, they are precious,” said another. “No one has a right to take them.”

Jurors were asked whether they believed the death penalty should be the only punishment issued for first-degree murder. Most said no. They were asked if they could commit to attending a lengthy trial. Some who could not were dismissed. Many remained.

If Johnson is found guilty of first-degree murder, the case will move to a penalty phase. The jurors would likely hear about Johnson’s military service. Court records indicate they would also likely hear about his struggles with depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

They also would likely see YouTube videos Ricky Willis made. The young man, who had attended Crestwood Elementary School and had earned a spot as a drummer in his fifth-grade music ensemble, posted online video updates about his life and family. In one, posted shortly before he died, he talks excitedly about a drum audition for the TV show America’s Got Talent. He said would be “going a lot of places.”

Jury selection is expected to last through Friday. The trial is expected to take two weeks after that