Crime

Judge gives Miami killer life to spare victim’s family from death penalty disputes

Miami’s Charles Johnson was sentenced to life in prison Thursday for the murder of Luvonia Williams in 2011. Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie decided on life although a jury, in a 10-2 vote, recommended that he be executed.
Miami’s Charles Johnson was sentenced to life in prison Thursday for the murder of Luvonia Williams in 2011. Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie decided on life although a jury, in a 10-2 vote, recommended that he be executed. Miami Herald

By a 9-3 vote, a jury last year recommended that Charles Johnson should be sent to Death Row for fatally shooting a young Miami mother, execution style.

With many of Florida’s death-penalty cases in flux because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, a judge on Thursday ruled otherwise, sentencing Johnson instead to life in prison.

“This made no sense at all. They all break your heart, but this one made no sense,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie told Johnson. “You ruined your own life and you took a life and ruined the lives of many others. I pray for you.”

Sayfie also told the family of the slain woman, 22-year-old Luvonia Williams, that she hoped the life sentence would provide finality, instead of more legal wrangling and court hearings that a death sentence might bring about.

“My goal is to make sure we don’t have to go through this again,” Sayfie told them.

Williams’ mother, Trudy Carter, nodded her head in agreement. Afterward, Carter said she was fine with the decision.

“Life in prison. He has to think about what he did for the rest of his life and will never again see daylight,” Carter said.

Johnson’s conviction and the jury’s death recommendation came at an unusual time.

A jury in October convicted Johnson of first-degree murder for killing Williams, and soon afterward recommended death. But before Sayfie could decide whether to follow the recommendation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s death-penalty sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries.

It remains unclear whether the high court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida applies to people who had already been convicted, sentenced and had their appeals exhausted before the opinion was released.

Last week, the Florida Supreme Court heard from opponents of the death penalty who argued that all 390 Death Row inmates should get life sentences because they were sentenced under a flawed system.

The Legislature was forced to revamp the statute. Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. Whether to actually impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors.

In Johnson’s case, prosecutors asked for a new sentencing hearing. His defense lawyers, Michael Bloom and Bruce Fleisher, disagreed because the law remains in limbo for Johnson.

“Life is the only constitutional sentence that can be imposed at this time,” Bloom told the judge.

Prosecutors said the shooting stemmed from Williams’ sister breaking up with David Johnson, Charles’ brother.

The contentious domestic dispute culminated in the brothers, both armed with guns, shooting into a crowd outside the 1900 block of Northwest 92nd Street. In all, three people were shot and wounded. Williams was struck and tried to stagger away. Prosecutors believe that Charles — on his brother’s orders — fired two final, fatal shots as she lay on the ground.

At the time of the shooting, Williams’ 1-year-old son was inside a nearby house that was also shot up. The jury found Charles Johnson guilty of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.

David Johnson is still awaiting trial.

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