A jury recommended life in prison without parole Friday for Kemar Johnston in connection to an October 2006 double murder. Johnston, 23, faced life imprisonment or death in connection to the torture and slaying of Alexis Sosa, 18, and his 14-year-old nephew, Jeffrey Sosa. The jury deliberated for less than an hour before recommending the life sentence to 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese. Reese will make the final decision on Johnston’s sentence, but he will greatly consider the jury’s recommendation when making that decision. A sentencing date of March 1 at 1:30 p.m. at the Lee County Justice Center in Fort Myers has been set for Johnston. Reese will announce his decision at that time. After the recommended sentence was read Friday, the family and friends of the Sosas who were present were escorted out of the building by baliffs in an effort to keep the victims’ and defendant’s parties separated. Minutes later Johnston’s family and friends were escorted out in the same manner.
Family members of Johnston refused to comment on their way out.
Johnston was found guilty Jan 30 by a jury on two counts each of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. The same 12-member jury of 10 women and two men recommended life in prison. The one alternate juror was excused when deliberations began Friday. The woman refused to comment on the case. The penalty phase of Johnston’s trial began Tuesday as Assistant State Attorney Bob Lee and defense attorney David A. Brener outlined the basis for leaning one way or the other in recommending a sentence. Jurors spent the next few days listening to both sides build their case.
The state and defense began Friday with closing statements and both sides rested at about 3 p.m. The jury went into deliberations at about 3:45 p.m., and jurors announced that they reached a verdict at approximately 4:37 p.m. The state argued that a list of aggravating circumstances supported the death penalty for Johnston. Lee said Johnston had previously been convicted of a capital felony – the murder of Alexis when looking at the crime against Jeffrey, and vice versa – and participated in or was tied to a kidnapping. He argued that the crimes were especially heinous, atrocious and cruel, and were homicides committed in a cold, calculated premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification. The jury only had to decide that one aggravator had been met to consider the death penalty as a sentence.
In his closing statement Friday, Lee explained that if the jury decided there were sufficient aggravating circumstances to justify the death penalty, then they must decide if the mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating. “It’s a question of the weight that you give to the aggravating circumstances and the mitigating circumstances,” he said. “With many of these mitigators, they should be given very little weight.” Also in his closing statement, Lee pointed out that the defense claimed that Johnston “did not do these horrible things” during the trial, then had experts in the penalty phase explaining why Johnston did what he did. He agreed that some got plea deals for their testimony, but he noted that there were those who did not like the experts and doctors.
Lee also questioned if it was mob mentality that led to the murders or if Johnston was leading the group. “As the Cash Feenz and the defendant’s friends focused on Alexis Sosa, and the defendant steps in and takes control, they all started to know what he wanted,” he said. “He made matters worse because was the strong directive leader within this dynamic.” Before resting the state’s case, Lee told the jurors they had an opportunity to render both mercy and justice. “It was his choices, his decisions, and at some point this man must learn that there are consequences to a person’s actions; consequences to heinous, atrocious and cruel actions,” he said. “Sadly those actions have ripple effects that went beyond Alexis and Jeffrey Sosa. Those consequences have to be answered.”
During the course of the penalty phase, the defense presented a long list of mitigating circumstances for the jury to consider. Brener called on witnesses who testified to Johnston’s impoverished upbringing in Jamaica, brain damage and difficulty learning, character and good deeds, among other things. Jurors were asked to take into account Johnston’s level of impairment the night of the murders, the peer pressure and what Johnston’s friends meant to him. “You’re here because of your ability to give life in an appropriate case, and I submit to you that this is an appropriate case,” Brener said Friday during his closing statement. He pushed for life in prison on the basis that it protects society – “the only way he’ll ever leave is in a pine box,” Brener said – that it severely punishes the defendant, that the law accepts and recognizes a mandatory sentence of life, and that the sentence satisfies the principals of justice.
“Life without parole is no picnic. It’s a huge consequence,” he said in answer to Lee’s earlier statement. Brener argued that the state did not prove the aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, that one cannot say beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnston killed Jeffrey, and that witness statements are inconsistent and some conflict with one another and the evidence. He noted that the crime lacks a careful plan or prearranged designed and no testimony heard during the trial mentioned planning the murders. Brener said Johnston did not lure the Sosas to the duplex where they were tortured, and he questioned what Johnston did to the Sosas versus what others did to the two on their own. “Kemar didn’t go hunting him down. It was nothing of the sort,” Brener said. “These aggravating circumstances have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Not even close.”
Brener told the jury to save the death penalty for the worst aggravated cases with the least mitigating circumstances. He called Johnston’s case a “highly, highly mitigated case” and urged the jury to carefully consider the mitigators presented. “Some mitigators are more weighty than others,” Brener said. Brener concluded Friday by explaining to the jurors that they were not compelled or required to recommend the death penalty, even if they found that the aggravating circumstances were enough to recommend death. “Mercy and compassion can be extended to Kemar Johnston. You can consider that,” he said. “To recommend that another human being should be sentenced to death should be reserved for the worst, of the worst, of the worst.” Johnston was one of 10 people arrested and charged in connection to the murders. The Sosas were hog-tied, beaten and tortured at a Cape Coral duplex during a birthday party. They were then driven to an industrial park in the north Cape, where they were fatally shot and Alexis’ body was placed in the truck of a car and set on fire. Emergency units responding to a call about a possible fire discovered the car in flames and Jeffrey’s body lying nearby.
Roderick Washington and Ashley Toye were found guilty following separate trials. Washington received four consecutive life sentences plus 30 years in prison, and Toye was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Melissa Rivera, Iriana Santos, Alexis Fernandez, Cody Roux and Michael Balint have each pleaded guilty to lesser crimes and will receive prison sentences varying between 14 years and 26 years in exchange for their testimony.
Kenneth “Ant” Lopez’s trial is scheduled for May 17. Paul Nunes, who pleaded guilty in August for a reduced sentence of 40 years in prison, recently was appointed new counsel. On Dec. 28, he requested that his plea deal, which required him to testify against Johnston and Lopez, be withdrawn. He still testified against Johnston, although his plea withdrawal request has yet to be ruled on.