Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Teen Awaits Sentence in Slaying When He Was 12; Decision Will Be One of the First after Nelson Becomes State Attorney

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Teen Awaits Sentence in Slaying When He Was 12; Decision Will Be One of the First after Nelson Becomes State Attorney

Article excerpt

Byline: Larry Hannan

When Sharron "Tommy" Townsend was brought in by Jacksonville police for questioning in the death of a 54-year-old homeless man in 2014, one of the first questions police asked the boy what was his date of birth.

When he said Oct. 8, 2001, the lead detective in the case had a one-word response.

"Wow," said detective Eileen Simpson as she looked at the 12-year-old who was about to be arrested on a charge of murdering Thomas Zona Trent.

The Times-Union received a video of the interview as part of a public records request for materials in the case, although portions where Townsend appears to confess were cut out because confessions are not public record before trial and sentencing.

Circuit Judge Jack Schemer must decide how long Townsend, now 15 after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in June, should spend in prison. Sentencing is scheduled to occur in February. Townsend faces 10 to 40 years in prison as part of his negotiated plea deal.

Schemer will have to balance Townsend's age with the senselessness of his crime when he makes his decision. The sentencing will also be one of the first juvenile decisions made by incoming State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who replaces incumbent Angela Corey in January.

Nelson has said she will not comment on specific cases before she takes office but was critical of Corey's record prosecuting juveniles as adults when she ran against her in the Republican primary.

In court filings defense attorneys indicate they will argue Townsend deserves a light sentence due to his age and mental issues. They include evidence that Townsend suffers from brain abnormalities such as fetal alcohol syndrome and brain injuries.

According to police reports, Trent owed Townsend money. Another homeless man interviewed by police said Townsend used to throw things at Trent and call him a "MF cracker" and other racist names and Trent would say racist things back to him.

Townsend is black and Trent was white.

In several hours of police interviews at the time of his arrest, Townsend himself seems confused over why he shot Trent. Early on Simpson encouraged Townsend to tell the truth, warning him investigators already knew what happened and it would go bad for him if he tried to lie.

But Simpson also appealed to Townsend's better nature when he appeared reluctant to reveal anything about what happened.

"Are you the type of person who just doesn't care about anybody, and you're just that evil at 12?" Simpson asked Townsend at one point. "I don't know any kid your age that could be evil like that."

Simpson then asked Townsend if he was evil.

Townsend fought back tears, responding he was not.

According to then 16-year-old Darrell Royal Jr., who was with Townsend when the homeless man was gunned down in the parking lot of a shopping center on 103rd Street, Townsend kicked Trent and when Royal turned to leave he heard one shot. …

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