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Tampa jury says death penalty for man who killed 10-year-old boy

The jury deliberated five hours before deciding Tyrone Johnson should die for the murder of Ricky Willis.
Tyrone Johnson sits during the penalty phase of his trial in Tampa on Tuesday. Johnson was found guilty of the murders of his girlfriend, Stephanie Willis, and her 10-year-old son Ricky Willis.
Tyrone Johnson sits during the penalty phase of his trial in Tampa on Tuesday. Johnson was found guilty of the murders of his girlfriend, Stephanie Willis, and her 10-year-old son Ricky Willis. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 17
Updated Nov. 17

TAMPA — Tyrone Terell Johnson should be executed for the murder of 10-year-old Ricky Ryon Willis, a Tampa jury decided Wednesday.

After a two-week trial, the panel of seven women and five men deliberated about five hours before all 12 concluded that Johnson deserved the death penalty.

Johnson, 45, stood at a defense table and stared straight ahead as the jury’s decision was announced. He showed no reaction.

The same jury last week found Johnson guilty in of the murders of Stephanie Willis and her son, Ricky Ryon Willis. The mother and son were both shot to death one evening in 2018 at their Tampa apartment.

Robert Hewitt, father and grandfather to the victims, shook in his seat as Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella read the jury’s decision aloud.

“I think it’s the best call they could have made,” Hewitt said. At the same time, he expressed compassion for Johnson’s family.

“They didn’t commit the crime,” he said. “Their son did.”

Tyrone Johnson smiles at relatives in the courtroom during a break in his trial at the Hillsborough Courthouse Annex in Tampa on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2021.
Tyrone Johnson smiles at relatives in the courtroom during a break in his trial at the Hillsborough Courthouse Annex in Tampa on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Several of Johnson’s family members sat behind him as the verdict was read. They left quietly afterward with his defense attorneys, who asked a reporter not to speak to them.

Judge Sabella set a January date for a hearing at which the defense will be able to present additional evidence to argue against the death penalty before the judge officially imposes the sentence.

The case is the third in which the office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has sought the death penalty at trial since Warren took office in 2016. It is the second in which a jury has returned a verdict for death.

In closing arguments Wednesday morning, Assistant State Attorney John Terry recounted Ricky’s final moments, describing how he ran to his bedroom and hid under his bed as his mother was being shot. The prosecutor emphasized the extreme pain the boy likely felt as Johnson shot him, too.

“Pain, suffering, terror,” Terry said. “Those were the final moments in the all-too-short life of Ricky Willis.”

Assistant Public Defender Jamie Kane did not deny that Ricky Willis suffered. As he spoke to the jury, he placed the boy’s school portrait on a TV monitor.

“We don’t turn our backs to that image and that reality just because we’re asking for something different,” Kane said.

But the defense lawyer emphasized Johnson’s expressions of remorse and the pain his crimes had brought to his own family. He stressed that Johnson will not escape punishment.

“Tyrone Johnson is going to die behind bars,” Kane said. “We’re asking you to let it be a natural one, to allow him and his family to continue on the path of redemption, to get himself right with that loss, that sin, that crime, that horror.”

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Related: Tampa jury hears of defendant's mental struggles as they weigh death penalty
Stephanie and Ricky Willis appear in a family photo.
Stephanie and Ricky Willis appear in a family photo. [ Hillsborough State Attorney's Office ]

The killings happened Oct. 21, 2018, at the apartment where Johnson was staying with Willis and her son in the Mariner’s Cove complex, east of Tampa. Johnson phoned 911 that evening and claimed he’d been attacked.

In a tearful interview with detectives, Johnson said he and Stephanie began to argue over whether he could watch a football game on TV.

He said she began to badger him with profane insults. She complained about Johnson sleeping all day; he was recovering from foot surgery at the time. She complained about their sex life. She made a reference to Johnson’s son, Devin, who had died by suicide less than a year earlier.

Related: As death penalty looms, Tampa jury hears of mother and son slayings

As her remarks escalated, Johnson said, he began to pack his belongings and made a video call to his father in South Carolina. In court, Edward Johnson recalled that his son didn’t look well.

“It was like something within him had went totally haywire, where it’s him, but it’s not him,” he said.

Johnson begged his father to come get him. The father could hear Willis’ voice. He saw her hand come into view. Then he heard two gunshots before the call dropped.

Johnson told detectives he grabbed the weapon, a Glock 22 .40-caliber, and began firing when his girlfriend began attacking him. He said he kept firing as the boy came in the master bedroom and then left.

Detectives found the physical evidence did not match Johnson’s account. There was blood beneath the boy’s bed and two bullet holes in his bedroom wall, indicating he’d tried to hide as he was shot.

Prosecutors argued that Johnson moved the bodies to stage the scene before calling 911.

They sought the death penalty for the child’s killing, citing as aggravating factors his age, that Johnson had also killed the boy’s mother and that his death was especially heinous, atrocious and cruel.

In a two-day penalty phase, Johnson’s defense argued a myriad of reasons to spare his life. They brought to life an image of a man who served his country in the Marines and Army, a loving father of four children, but also a man who was deeply troubled.

A forensic psychologist diagnosed Johnson with major depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia. His condition was marked by anger.

In the years before the killings, he’d been treated for depression and expressed suicidal thoughts. He’d worked as a paralegal in the Florida attorney general’s office for a few months in 2017, but had trouble getting along with his coworkers and frequently showed up late or not at all. He was asked to resign.

But a different expert, testifying for the state, said Johnson’s problems were not rooted in depression, but dangerous antisocial tendencies.

Terry, the prosecutor, suggested that whatever Johnson’s problems, they were not enough to outweigh the pain he inflicted on a 10-year-old boy.

He spoke of Ricky — a fifth grader who liked professional wrestling, made YouTube videos about his life and family, and was preparing for a drum audition on the TV show America’s Got Talent. He noted that the boy’s nickname was “Hero.”

“He was a hero, ladies and gentlemen,” Terry said. “He went into that room while his mom was being shot to protect his mom. The last moments of his life was to protect his mom.”