Prosecutors with the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office secured a guilty verdict and a recommendation for the most severe punishment possible for Tyrone Johnson after he viciously murdered his girlfriend and her 10-year-old son following an argument over what the family would watch on TV.
A 12-member jury unanimously recommended Johnson receive the death penalty on Wednesday. The jury’s decision came five days after they found Johnson guilty of second-degree murder for killing Stephanie Willis and both first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse for killing Stephanie’s son Ricky “Ryon” Willis. Judge Christopher Sabella will weigh the evidence and decide whether to approve the jury’s recommended sentence in the coming weeks.
Stephanie was a home health aide who dedicated her time to providing care for senior citizens. Ryon was an eager student who played the drums in his elementary school’s 5th Grade music ensemble. Assistant State Attorneys John Terry, Teresa Hall, and Karyna Valdes prosecuted the case and secured the guilty verdict following a two-week trial.
Prosecutors explained to the 12-member jury that Johnson called 911 on the evening of October 21, 2018 and told the operator he had just shot two people. Johnson claimed that they had attacked him, and he shot them to protect himself. First responders found the two victims close together, but as detectives examined the physical evidence, it became clear Johnson was not under attack when he killed them.
Instead, detectives determined that Johnson and his girlfriend got into an argument over what the family would watch on TV, and during that confrontation, Johnson shot her multiple times. As this nightmare was unfolding, his girlfriend’s 10-year-old son tried to hide from Johnson. Terrified, he crawled under his bed to keep from being found.
The physical evidence shows Johnson discovered Ryon Willis as he desperately tried to hide—and shot him several times while he was still under the bed. Johnson then moved the victims’ bodies in an attempt to stage the scene for his phone call to 911 and his claim that he was defending himself.
“The day the defendant chose to shoot and kill my oldest daughter, and hunt down, torture and brutally murder my only biological grandson, part of me died. Not only did he take away my family, he took away my future generations,” said Robert Hewitt—Stephanie’s father and Ryon’s grandfather. “I am thankful for the decision in this case. After three years, we have received justice for Stephanie and Ryon.”
Hewitt said the conclusion of the trial will allow him to finally express his true grief. “The defendant’s relatives can show all the emotions they want to, but I, the father and grandfather of the victims, have to sit and hold my emotions in—as I hear of the torture my daughter and grandson endured,” he said.
Following the jury’s guilty verdict Friday, the trial entered the penalty phase. Prosecutors presented extensive evidence to the jury to illustrate why this crime was especially heinous and the death penalty should be considered, including Ryon Willis’s young age. Defense attorneys presented mitigating factors—a list of reasons that the defense contends should lead jurors to choose a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
Ultimately, the jury unanimously decided to recommend the death penalty. In the coming weeks, Judge Sabella will conduct an additional hearing and weigh the evidence before determining whether to approve the sentence for Johnson, who is now 45 years old.
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