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Judge delays sentencing for teen who killed at age 12

Sharron Townsend shot, killed homeless man in 2014

Sharron Townsend listens to testimony at Wednesday's sentencing hearing.
Sharron Townsend listens to testimony at Wednesday's sentencing hearing.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After a day of testimony, a Duval County judge on Wednesday decided that he would have to take some time before deciding on a sentence for one of the youngest killers in Jacksonville history.

Now 15, Sharron Townsend was 12 when he shot and killed 54-year-old Thomas Trent on Jacksonville's Westside in 2014. Although the murder weapon was never found, there was surveillance footage of Townsend running away from the scene, along with another teen who later worked with police to bring charges against Townsend.

When Trent was shot with a .22-caliber pistol, Townsend was on probation for burglary. He was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trent in a parking lot off 103rd Street. 

Investigators said Townsend and Trent did not know each other. Police said the killing appeared to be random, as Trent was not robbed.

A series of character witnesses testified that Townsend was born to a teenage mother and grew up in horrific conditions. His lawyer said he left that home after a relative him with a metal pipe. That was right before Townsend killed Trent.

Defense witness Dr. Geoffrey Colino, a forensic neurologist, testified via Skype that prenatal records of Townsend show his mother smoked marijuana and tobacco during pregnancy. He also testified about alcohol and cocaine use.

Townsend's mother, Nekia Pollard, was 16 years old when he was born. Colino testified about Townsend's development pre- and post-birth. Colino described Townsend as being born jittery, tremulous and irritable, likely due to toxins in his system or from withdrawal.

Colino also also said that Townsend started receiving behavioral medication as early as the age of 8, and that Townsend had been off his medication for less than two months when the murder occurred.

Part of the prosecution's argument was that Townsend's psychological profile was no excuse for murder. Prosecutors cross-examined Colino, asking him, "How does the fact that they have problems with impulse control make them shoot a person in the head?"

Colino replied, "That's a very silly question. It doesn't make someone shoot another person in the head. It means that if an impulse arises, a person with a front lobe lesion or frontal lobe abnormality will have considerable difficulty suppressing that impulse."

Dr. Joseph Wu, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Irvine, testified that Townsend has brain evidence that there was excessive alcohol damage in utero from his mother.

Sonya Flynn, a forensic social worker who worked with Townsend, testified for the defense.

"From the time he was 3 or 4, until about school age, they lived out on the street. And when I interviewed Nekia, she said that was most frightening part of her life," Flynn said. "She said that she tried to shield the children by finding a bush they could sleep under."

Flynn said that she had worked with Townsend since he was first incarcerated. She said his life had been dysfunctional, with no good male role models, no normalcy, a lot of moving around, and he never developed coping skills.

"(He) had no real grasp of what's wrong and right," she said.

It was also revealed during the testimony that Townsend even sent a letter to Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry about how young people can stay out of trouble. 

Defense witnesses said their goal was not to excuse the murder, but perhaps lessen the sentence.

As court adjourned for the day, Circuit Judge Jack Shemer said he needed to consider the case and will hand down a sentence at a later date. 

Under Florida's juvenile sentencing guidelines, since Townsend's still underage, if his sentence is more than 25 years, it will be reviewed again.

"It's all up to the judge. We do apologize to the victim's family for what they going through," said John McCormick, Townsend's stepfather. 

Trent's family said they want Townsend to get the maximum possible punishment. Trent's sister described her brother's happy spirit to the court on Wednesday.

"Being homeless was a great choice for him. He felt safer and happier being out there, talking to people, getting to know people and doing things with them," she said.

Until the judge makes his decision, Townsend's family members said they will be anxiously waiting. 

"I'm hoping that they don't give him 40 years. All we can do is just pray and leave it in God's hands," said Lailah Pollard, Townsend's grandmother. "From 12 years old, he ain't been out. He just got out of locked up confinement all this time. Y'all need to get your juvenile system straight and give out more parenting classes."


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