Hike sentence

Corey Johnson sentenced to life in prison for murdering teenager in 2018

WEST PALM BEACH — Corey Johnson apologized on Thursday for killing 13-year-old Jovanni Sierra at a sleepover in 2018. He even denounced ISIS — the militant Islamic group which his lawyers say influenced his thinking before the murder – at his sentencing.

“I know that I have contributed to the spread of evil in this world,” Johnson, now 21, told the court. “In just one night, I destroyed the lives of friends, families and even strangers. I attacked people who were like a second family to me.”

But it wasn’t enough.

Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo sentenced Johnson to life in prison at the end of the three-hour hearing in West Palm Beach.

“I don’t think a pardon is likely,” Caracuzzo told Johnson as he announced his sentencing and denied his request to serve 40 years in prison instead. She cited her willingness to kill for extremist views.

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In November 2020, a jury found Johnson guilty of first degree murder and two counts of attempted murder in the March 12, 2018 incident at his best friend’s home 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 said before his sentencing on Thursday.

Prosecutors said Johnson, who was 17 at the time of the attacks, killed Sierra after the 13-year-old made a remark Johnson considered offensive to his new Muslim faith. He also stabbed Elaine Simon, the owner of the house, and Dane Bancroft, her younger son and Sierra’s best friend.

Johnson’s attorneys have not disputed that the former Jupiter resident – whose online behavior at William T. Dwyer High School caught the attention of the FBI – caused “untold damage”.

They said a severe bout of depression, drugs such as Zoloft and online activities such as watching ISIS videos fueled Johnson’s behavior and led him to become “psychotic and delusional”. . They asked the jury to find him not guilty by reason of insanity.

Sierra’s mother and grandmother spoke at the sentencing hearing and asked the judge to sentence Johnson to life in prison. Sierra’s family also shared memories of the boy, who died on his 13th birthday, during the hearing.

Karen Sierra Velez, Sierra’s mother, called March 12, 2018 the worst day of her life. She released a slideshow with photos of her son before testifying at the hearing.

“I remember calling my son’s phone for a while after he died just to hear his voice,” she told the court.

Birthday party, slumber party preceded by attacks

The incident happened during a Sunday night sleepover at Simon’s home, where she lived with her two sons. This followed a birthday party for Sierra at a restaurant in downtown Palm Beach Gardens.

Johnson told police he first met Sierra at the party and accompanied his friend, Kyle Bancroft, Dane’s older brother, to the event. Dane Bancroft and Jovanni Sierra were classmates at Watson B. Duncan Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens.

The boys gathered that night for the sleepover at the home of Bancroft-Simon, which Johnson often visited, Simon told police. He and Kyle had met at daycare years before.

According to court records, Johnson began the attacks after everyone inside the house had fallen asleep, starting with Sierra. He told police he was motivated in part to kill because Sierra had made statements calling people “gods” that he believed were an affront to his Islamic beliefs.

Text messages revealed that Johnson had taken photos before the attacks and sent them to a Muslim girl with whom he appeared to develop a relationship online.

Sierra’s moans as Johnson stabbed and slit her throat caught the attention of Simon, who went upstairs to her bedroom to investigate, according to police and prosecutors. Johnson then turned his knife on Simon, stabbing her repeatedly, before attacking Dane Bancroft as the teenager tried to save his mother.

Dane, now 17, told the jury that Johnson seemed “almost happy” when he stabbed him. Johnson then woke up Kyle Bancroft and told him that he had killed his brother and Sierra.

Kyle Bancroft said during his testimony that he had a groggy memory of seeing Johnson jump up and down, clutching a bloody knife in a hallway bathroom.

“I was half awake and half asleep,” Kyle recalled. “I wasn’t fully aware if I was being pranked or in a dream.”

Police used tear gas to subdue Johnson, who hid in a closet after attacks ended in the gated community near PGA Boulevard and Military Trail.

The defense argued that mental illness drove Johnson to kill

During the trial, attorneys argued over whether Johnson was sane when he killed Sierra.

The defense argued that Johnson – described by a defense psychologist as “an empty vessel trying to belong” – had his thinking manipulated by extremist content, including Islamic State propaganda videos, which had been released on the Internet.

His lawyers said he discovered the videos while trying to learn more about Islam, a faith he began to profess in the months before the murders. Coroners found graphic videos on Johnson’s smartphone after his arrest.

Prosecutors said Johnson deliberately sought out extremist content and wanted to harm those he believed to be inferior to him. A psychiatrist who testified for the state said that in his view Johnson knew right from wrong when the attacks happened.

At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, a neuropsychologist diagnosed Johnson with high-functioning autism after reviewing hundreds of documents and video interviews.

Johnson has above-average intelligence but delayed maturity and severe mental illness, Dr. Michael Scott told the court.

Karen Sierra, mother of Jovanni Sierra, is hugged in the hallway outside the courtroom after Corey Johnson was sentenced to life in prison Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in West Palm Beach.  A jury found Johnson guilty of first-degree murder in November for the 2018 fatal stabbing of Jovanni Sierra at a sleepover in Palm Beach Gardens.  Johnson was also found guilty of two counts of attempted murder for attacking 13-year-old Dane Bancroft and his mother, Elaine Simon.

Grandma recounts Johnson’s difficult childhood

Johnson’s maternal grandmother, Joanne DiCocco, testified Thursday that as a young boy, Johnson witnessed domestic violence between his father and mother, who both suffered from mental illnesses.

Johnson and her dad bonded over playing video games, she said, but Johnson only saw her dad once after her mom moved back to Palm Beach County after divorcing her. his parents. Johnson’s father died about 10 years ago of a drug overdose.

His grandmother described Johnson as a loving child who wanted to spend time with his family, but said that as he got older and seeing his mother repeatedly hospitalized for depression and drug overdoses, he became “withdrawn”.

His problems began years before the attacks when he was a student at Independence Middle School in Jupiter. Students have reported him stalking them on social media and engaging in strange behavior.

This behavior quickly led to online threats and caught the attention of the FBI. While a student at Dwyer, Johnson was suspected of sending a threat to a Catholic high school in England in 2016, prompting nearly 100 parents to withdraw their children from lessons.

Funeral services were held Friday, March 16, 2018, for 13-year-old Jovanni Sierra (left), who was stabbed to death Monday, March 12, 2018 at a home in BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens.  He is seen here with his mother, Karen, in a family photo.

In her first public comments since the stabbings, Johnson’s mother, Jennifer Johnson, testified during the trial that Corey grew increasingly disgruntled in the weeks leading up to the stabbings, at one point expressing thoughts suicidal.

During that time, he dumped Dwyer and saw his online relationship with the girl end days before the sleepover, police and prosecutors said.

He was prescribed Zoloft for his mental health issues, but prosecutors said he stopped taking the powerful prescription drug shortly before the attacks.

In his search for meaning in his life, Johnson turned to the internet, Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout told jurors. His research led him to embrace Islam.

While he first fell in love with the faith’s promises of brotherhood, Haughwout said, his research introduced him to the extremist views of ISIS, a terrorist group officially known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

DiCocco said she tried to get him to go to a mosque instead of learning religion from online videos.

Johnson had previously developed an interest in white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, but lost interest as these groups did not “keep pace” in observing Johnson’s views on issues such as smoking, alcohol consumption and premarital sex, a psychologist who evaluated him for the defense said.

Johnson told the court during Thursday’s hearing that researching Islam while in prison taught him the “sacredness of human life”. He said his research also led him to speak out against ISIS.

Outside the courtroom after sentencing, Sierra-Velez kissed DiCocco. She told reporters she was trying to forgive everyone and continue to be strong for her son, who would have turned 17 this year.

“I just wanted to feel their love,” she said. “They know the pain of losing someone you love.”

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