WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A young Florida man convicted of killing a 13-year-old friend during a sleepover five years ago apologized at his sentencing and denounced a militant Islamic group that his lawyers claimed influenced his thinking. The judge sentenced him to life in prison.
Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo denied a request to have Corey Johnson spend 40 years behind bars for the killing of Jovanni Sierra, saying she doesn’t believe rehabilitation is likely because of his willingness to kill for radical views.
“I know I contributed to the spread of evil in this world,” Johnson, now 21, told the court, the Palm Beach Post reported.
Jurors found Johnson guilty in November of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder for the stabbing attack during the victim’s birthday sleepover at his best friend’s home in Palm Beach Gardens.
Johnson was 17 at the time, and offended by a remark Sierra had made about his newly pronounced faith, prosecutors said. He also stabbed Elaine Simon, who owned the home where the party was, and Dane Bancroft, her younger son who was Sierra’s best friend.
Defense attorneys did not dispute that Johnson, whose online behavior had drawn the attention of the FBI, had done “unspeakable damage.” But they said Johnson had become “psychotic and delusional,” which they blamed on severe depression, prescription medications and watching ISIS videos.
Johnson met Sierra for the first time at the birthday party. He had accompanied his friend, Kyle Bancroft, Dane’s older brother, according to police. Dane Bancroft and Sierra attended middle school together. Simon told police that Johnson had visited her home often, and that he and her older son had been friends since day care.
Prosecutors said the stabbings began after everyone had gone to sleep. Johnson hid in a closet after the attacks and police used tear gas to eventually subdue him, records show.
A neuropsychologist testified Thursday after reviewing hundreds of documents and video interviews. Johnson has above-average intelligence but delayed maturity, autism and severe mental illness, Dr. Michael Scott told the court.
Years earlier, when he was in middle school, students reported Johnson had stalked them on social media, engaging them in odd behavior, the Post reported. His online behavior drew the FBI’s attention by the time he reached high school. He was suspected of sending a threat to a Catholic high school in England in 2016 that prompted nearly 100 parents to pull their children out of classes.
Jennifer Johnson testified that her son had become increasingly unhappy before the stabbing — he dropped out of high school and his online relationship with a girl had recently ended.
Karen Sierra-Velez said after the sentencing that she is trying to forgive and to remain strong for her son, who would have been 17 this year.