In sentencing one of Jacksonville’s youngest murderers, Circuit Judge Jack Schemer acknowledged the Supreme Court’s consistent finding that kids are different and less culpable than adults — and then gave the boy 30 years behind bars.
Fifteen-year-old Sharron “Tommy” Townsend pleaded guilty in June to second-degree murder in the slaying of 54-year-old Thomas Zona Trent in June 2014. As a part of a negotiated plea, Townsend’s sentence had to be at least 10 years, but couldn’t exceed 40.
Townsend was just 12 when he killed Trent. At a February sentencing hearing Townsend’s defense team highlighted what happened in his early life that predicated his crime, and prosecutors focused on the callousness of his actions.
In his pronouncement on Monday, Schemer spoke directly to Townsend for 15 minutes, recapping the day-long hearing he’d had more than a month to consider.
Schemer wove together the situations in Townsend’s young life — his brain abnormalities, untreated mental health and educational needs, the abuse and violence in his family — that were stacked against him from even before birth, but also weighed the wishes of the victim’s family and the seriousness of the crime in sentencing Townsend to 30 years.
Townsend stood a head taller than the attorneys who flanked him on each side as Schemer read the narrative and sentence he had prepared.
“When you were a toddler, your family experienced extended periods of homelessness. When a home was ultimately attained, it was in a neighborhood where violent crimes, including robbery and murder, were common,” Schemer said. “The violence outside your doors also existed inside your doors. Discipline at home was violent.”
At times, Schemer sounded empathetic toward Townsend, saying he was sure it was frustrating for the boy not being able to learn well in school. But just as quickly, the judge would pivot back to the victim’s family, saying they “understandably” wanted Townsend to receive the maximum sentence.
“Their presence and their remarks should tell you didn’t just take the life of one person, but part of the lives of his family and friends, the people who really love him,” Schemer said.
Schemer also cited three landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases that all imposed restrictions on how juveniles can be sentenced for serious crimes. One of those cases, Graham v. Florida, originated in Jacksonville.
These cases, he said, rely on the significant differences between children and adults, including that children are less mature and more vulnerable than adults.
“They have limited control over their own environment, and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings,” Schemer said. “This definitely applies to you. … A child that grows up in these surroundings, there’s very little the child can do to change it.”
To have both a constitutional and appropriate sentence, Schemer said, these factors must be considered.
“It is important that you, or anyone, not confuse mitigation with justification or mitigation with forgiveness, because there is no justification for your crime,” the judge told Townsend.
Townsend will receive 964 days time-served credit. If the Department of Juvenile Justice agrees, Townsend will be able to stay in DJJ custody until he is 21. This would allow him to receive more rehabilitative services than he would in the Department of Corrections, where he will spend the remainder of his sentence.
The state also agreed to allow Townsend to receive a review of his sentence after 15 years. The judicial review would consider Townsend’s rehabilitation and maturation, and if he is still a threat to society. He could be released, or he could remain behind bars. He would receive a second review at 25 years. Florida statute only requires one review at 25 years for second-degree murder.
Townsend’s sentence will be followed by 10 years of probation during which he is to receive mental health services and be gainfully employed, and he also is to pay $518 in court costs.
Townsend has never said why he killed Trent, who was voluntarily homeless, in 2014. Townsend shot Trent in the head on June 28, 2014, outside an abandoned hamburger restaurant on 103rd Street where Trent made his camp.
At the sentencing hearing, Trent’s family described their loved one as a doting uncle and brother, and someone who would selflessly give coats and blankets to those in need.
Neither the Trent nor Townsend families wished to speak publicly about the outcome. Renata Hannans, a youth advocate who has worked with Townsend since 2015, said she knows the teen has to pay for the choice he made, but by giving kids such long sentences, “we’re telling kids they’re disposable.”
“I think it was a heavy sentence given the mitigation as well as his age,” Hannans said. “I was hoping for a lighter sentence, more on the lower end. … There’s really no happy ending to cases like this.”
Tessa Duvall: (904) 359-4697