WEST PALM BEACH — Corey Johnson apologized Thursday for killing 13-year-old Jovanni Sierra at a 2018 sleepover. He even denounced ISIS – the militant Islamic group that his legal professionals say influenced his considering earlier than the homicide – at his sentencing.
“I know I contributed to the spread of evil in this world,” Johnson, now 21, informed the courtroom. “In one single night, I destroyed the lives of friends, families and even strangers. I attacked the people who were like a second family to me.”
But it wasn’t sufficient.
Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo sentenced Johnson to life in prison at the tip of the three-hour listening to in West Palm Beach.
“I do not think rehabilitation is likely,” Caracuzzo informed Johnson in saying his sentencing and denying his request to spend 40 years in prison as an alternative. She cited his willingness to kill for extremist views.
In November 2020, a jury discovered Johnson responsible of first-degree homicide and two counts of tried homicide through the March 12, 2018, incident at his greatest good friend’s dwelling at BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens.
“I took the life of an innocent 13-year-old boy in the most heinous and cowardly way possible,” Johnson stated earlier than his sentencing was handed down Thursday.
Prosecutors stated Johnson, who was 17 at the time of the assaults, killed Sierra after the 13-year-old made a comment Johnson thought-about offensive to his newly professed Muslim religion. He additionally stabbed Elaine Simon, the proprietor of the house, and Dane Bancroft, her youthful son and Sierra’s greatest good friend.
Johnson’s attorneys didn’t dispute that that the one-time Jupiter resident – whose on-line conduct at William T. Dwyer High School drew the eye of the FBI – had carried out “unspeakable damage.”
They stated a extreme bout of melancholy, medicines comparable to Zoloft and on-line actions that included watching ISIS movies fueled Johnson’s conduct and led him to change into “psychotic and delusional.” They requested the jury to discover him not responsible by motive of madness.
Sierra’s mom and grandmother spoke at the sentencing listening to and requested the decide to sentence Johnson to life in prison. Sierra’s household additionally shared reminiscences of the boy, who died on his thirteenth birthday, through the listening to.
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Karen Sierra Velez, Sierra’s mom, referred to as March 12, 2018, the worst day of her life. She performed a slideshow with images of her son earlier than testifying through the listening to.
“I remember calling my son’s phone for a while after he passed just to hear his voice,” she informed the courtroom.
Birthday celebration, sleepover preceded assaults
The incident came about throughout a Sunday evening sleepover at Simon’s dwelling, the place she lived along with her two sons. It adopted a celebration for Sierra at a Downtown Palm Beach Gardens restaurant.
Johnson informed police he met Sierra for the primary time at the celebration and that he’d accompanied his good friend, Kyle Bancroft, Dane’s older brother, to the occasion. Dane Bancroft and Jovanni Sierra had been classmates at Watson B. Duncan Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens.
The boys gathered that evening for the sleepover at the Bancroft-Simon dwelling, which Johnson visited typically, Simon informed police. He and Kyle had met in day care years earlier than.
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According to courtroom data, Johnson started the assaults after everybody inside the home had gone to sleep, beginning with Sierra. He informed police he was motivated in half to kill as a result of Sierra had made statements calling individuals “gods” that he believed had been an affront to his Islamic beliefs.
Text messages revealed that Johnson took photos earlier than the assaults and despatched them to a Muslim lady with whom he had appeared to develop a web-based relationship.
Sierra’s moaning as Johnson stabbed him and slashed his throat caught the eye of Simon, who went upstairs from her bed room to examine, in accordance to police and prosecutors. Johnson then turned his knife on Simon, stabbing her a number of occasions, earlier than attacking Dane Bancroft as the teenager tried to save his mom.
Dane now 17, informed the jury that Johnson appeared to be “almost happy” as he stabbed him. Johnson then wakened Kyle Bancroft and informed him he had killed his brother and Sierra.
Kyle Bancroft stated throughout testimony that he has a groggy reminiscence of seeing Johnson leaping up and down, holding a bloody knife in a hallway toilet.
“I was half-awake and half-asleep,” Kyle remembered. “I wasn’t fully aware if I was being pranked or in a dream.”
Police used tear gasoline to subdue Johnson, who hid in a closet after the assaults ended in the gated group close to PGA Boulevard and Military Trail.
Defense argued psychological sickness drove Johnson to kill
During the trial, legal professionals argued over whether or not Johnson was sane when he killed Sierra.
The protection argued that Johnson – described by one protection psychologist as “an empty vessel looking to belong” – had his considering manipulated by extremist content material, together with Islamic State propaganda movies, that had been posted on the web.
His attorneys stated he had found the movies as he tried to study extra about Islam, a religion he started to profess in the months earlier than the slayings. Forensic scientists discovered graphic movies on Johnson’s smartphone after his arrest.
Prosecutors stated Johnson intentionally sought out the extremist content material and needed to hurt these he believed to be inferior to him. A psychiatrist who testified for the state stated that in his opinion, Johnson knew proper from flawed when the assaults occurred.
During Thursday’s sentencing listening to, a neuropsychologist identified Johnson as high-functioning autistic after reviewing lots of of paperwork and video interviews.
Johnson has above-average intelligence however delayed maturity and extreme psychological sickness, Dr. Michael Scott informed the courtroom.
Grandmother recounts Johnson’s tough childhood
Johnson’s maternal grandmother, Joanne DiCocco, testified Thursday that as a younger boy, Johnson noticed home violence between his father and mom, who each handled psychological sicknesses.
Johnson and his father bonded with by enjoying video video games, she stated, however Johnson solely noticed his father as soon as after his mom moved again to Palm Beach County following his mother and father’ divorce. Johnson’s father died about 10 years in the past from a drug overdose.
His grandmother described Johnson as a loving baby who needed to spend time with household, however stated that as he grew older and noticed his mom repeatedly hospitalized for melancholy and drug overdoses, he grew to become “withdrawn.”
His troubles surfaced years earlier than the assaults whereas he was a scholar at Independence Middle School in Jupiter. Students reported him stalking them on social media and fascinating in odd conduct.
That conduct quickly led to on-line threats and drew the eye of the FBI. While a scholar at Dwyer, Johnson was suspected of sending a menace to a Catholic highschool in England in 2016 that prompted practically 100 mother and father to pull their kids out of lessons.
In her first public feedback for the reason that stabbings, Johnson’s mom, Jennifer Johnson, testified through the trial that Corey had change into more and more sad in the weeks main up to the stabbings, at one level expressing suicidal ideas.
In that time period, he dropped out of Dwyer and noticed his on-line relationship with the lady finish simply days prior to the sleepover, police and prosecutors stated.
He was prescribed Zoloft for his mental-health points, however prosecutors say he stopped taking the potent prescription drug shortly earlier than the assaults.
In his search for that means in his life, Johnson turned to the web, Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout informed jurors. His analysis led him to embrace Islam.
While he initially grew to become enamored of the religion’s guarantees of brotherhood, Haughwout stated, his search launched him to the extremist views of the ISIS, a terrorist group formally referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
DiCocco stated she tried to get him to go to a mosque as an alternative of studying in regards to the faith from on-line movies.
Johnson had beforehand developed an curiosity in white supremacist and Neo-Nazi teams however misplaced curiosity as these teams didn’t “walk the walk” in observing Johnson’s views on points comparable to smoking, consuming alcohol and premarital intercourse, a psychologist who evaluated him for the protection stated.
Johnson informed the courtroom throughout Thursday’s listening to that researching Islam throughout his time in jail has taught him the “sanctity of human life.” He stated his analysis additionally led him to denounce ISIS.
Outside the courtroom after the sentencing, Sierra-Velez embraced DiCocco. She informed reporters she is attempting to forgive everybody and proceed being sturdy for her son, who would have turned 17 this yr.
“I just wanted to feel their love,” she stated. “They know the pain of losing someone you love.”
This article initially appeared on Palm Beach Post: Corey Johnson gets life prison sentence for 2018 sleepover murder of teen