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Polk teen gets life sentence for rape of 2-year-old girl

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

BARTOW — Nineteen-year-old Thomas James Johnson was sentenced to life imprisonment Friday for violently raping a two-year-girl in 2018, leaving her with permanent injuries.

Johnson, of Bartow, stood motionless — his hand in his pockets – as Circuit Judge Kevin Abdoney read his sentencing decision. In the back of the courtroom, his mother and sister quietly sobbed.

Earlier Friday, Johnson asked to make a statement during the hearing. He turned to those gathered in the courtroom, including the child’s family, and apologized.

“I’m sorry to the (child’s) family for all the pain and misery that this impacted on your lives,” he said.

Then he thanked Abdoney for his time and patience.

Since Johnson was 17 and a juvenile when the crime took place in April 2018, he didn’t face a mandatory life sentence for sexual battery on a child, as would have been imposed on an adult. Instead, Abdoney had latitude in imposing sentence after Johnson pleaded no contest to that charge and tampering with evidence.

In sentencing Johnson, he said the nature of the crime called for Johnson to be sentenced as an adult. He also designated Johnson as a sexual predator, which would restrict his access to the internet, where he could live and other factors if he’s released from prison.

After the sentencing hearing, the girl’s father said he was relieved Johnson was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of something less, but he didn’t think even a life sentence was enough.

“It isn’t justice enough for my daughter,” he said. “I honestly think the death penalty is the way to go on a lot of things like this, but, of course, there are laws against things and they don’t do that anymore.”

Her mother said she was glad Johnson won’t be free to hurt anyone else’s child.

“I don’t like the fact that 20 years down the road they can redo the sentencing again,” she said, “but if they do, I will be here for that, to fight it.”

Under Florida law, juvenile defendants who are sentenced to life imprisonment are automatically brought back before the sentencing judge after 20 years, at which time the court reviews any rehabilitation that’s taken place and determines whether prison is still appropriate. Should the judge decide the defendant needs to remain in custody, another automatic review is scheduled for 10 years later.

Johnson was arrested April 28, 2018, just hours after calling the girl’s father to say she had been hurt and he needed to come home. The father called 911, and Johnson told deputies a masked intruder dressed all in black came into the home while he was sleeping. Johnson said he had chased the man from the house, then realized the child – one of three that had been left in his care that night – had been hurt.

As the investigation continued the night of the attack, a deputy and a K-9 went outside the mobile home in the rural Alturas area to track the stranger’s movements. The track, however, led to a bloody sheet that Johnson later admitted to hiding in the woods behind the house.

In her closing argument to Abdoney on Friday, Assistant State Attorney Ashley McCarthy reminded Abdoney that the child was bleeding and crying in pain after the attack, and Johnson waited to call for help.

“Instead of going and helping her,” she said, “even at that point, he chose himself. He chose ... to go through the backyard, through the pasture, to the orange grove, to the trees and into the trees to hide that sheet, while she was sitting there bleeding, in all that pain. That baby – who is still crying so loudly (deputies) could hear her when they got to the home. That is powerful, judge, and one of the most disturbing things about this case.”

Defense lawyer Catherine Orazi, with the state Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, had presented testimony that Johnson’s immaturity, his history of sexual abuse involving relationships with older women, his addiction to pornography and masturbation and his impulsiveness caused by his attention deficit disorder ultimately led to the attack that April night. She was seeking a lighter sentence Friday that would have enabled Johnson to receive therapy for those problems.

Johnson has remained in custody since his arrest in April 2018, and Abdoney gave him credit for that time when imposing sentence Friday.

Suzie Schottelkotte can be reached at suzie.schottelkotte@theledger.com or 863-533-9070. Follow her on Twitter @southpolkscene.

DID YOU KNOW?

Under Florida law, juvenile defendants who are sentenced to life imprisonment are automatically brought back before the sentencing judge after 20 years, at which time the court reviews any rehabilitation that’s taken place and determines whether prison is still appropriate.