MILWAUKEE (AP) — A 76-year-old Milwaukee man who fatally shot his unarmed teenage neighbor was sentenced to life in prison Monday, days after telling the court he killed the boy for justice because he believed he stole his shotguns.
John Henry Spooner's home had been burglarized two days before the May 2012 shooting, and he suspected 13-year-old Darius Simmons as the thief. So he confronted the teen, demanded that he return the guns and then shot him in the chest in front of his mother when he denied stealing anything.
Spooner's own home surveillance cameras captured the shooting, and prosecutors aired the footage in court.
A jury found Spooner guilty of first-degree intentional homicide last week, a conviction carrying a mandatory life sentence. The judge could have allowed for the possibility of parole after 20 years, but rejected that option, citing Spooner's lack of remorse and desire to also kill the teen's brother.
Spooner, who has lung cancer and other physical ailments, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
While in court for his sentencing, Spooner spoke in a frail voice that was sometimes difficult to hear and reiterated that he felt he had little choice but to take the law into his own hands.
"They had to rob the house," he said. "Why'd they do that to me? ... They pushed me over the edge, I guess. I don't know. As far as being sorry, I don't know if I did right or wrong."
Judge Jeffrey Wagner replied sternly: "I can tell you, you did wrong. You took the life of a child."
The defense had argued that the killing might have been reckless but not intentional, and said Spooner didn't mean for the shot to be fatal.
The surveillance footage showed Spooner confronting Darius on a sidewalk, pointing a gun at the boy's chest and firing from a few feet away. Darius turned and fled, and then collapsed and died in the street moments later as his mother cradled him in her arms.
Spooner fired a second shot that missed. He tried to fire a third one but his gun jammed.
Darius' mother, Patricia Larry, has a wrongful-death lawsuit pending against Spooner.
Police searched Darius' home within hours of the shooting and didn't find Spooner's weapons.
Spooner testified at trial against his attorney's advice and said he killed the teen because he really wanted his guns back. He also acknowledged wanting to kill Darius' older brother when he ran to his sibling's aid as he lay dying in the street. But Spooner said he didn't shoot the brother because he didn't want to hit any of the others who had gathered around.
When prosecutor Mark Williams suggested Spooner killed Darius as revenge for having his guns stolen, Spooner replied, "I wouldn't call it revenge. I would call it justice."
Larry recalled those words from Spooner as she asked the judge to prevent him from ever being eligible for parole.
"I want him to be accountable for what he did to my son, Darius Simmons. I want him to have life in prison," she said at Monday's sentencing. "He showed no remorse and said justice was served. He is a menace to society."
The sentencing came about a week after former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted in Florida in the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black teen who was also unarmed. In the opening days of Spooner's trial in Milwaukee, the judge told the jury pool to separate the two cases.
During the trial, race — Spooner is white and Darius was black — was almost never mentioned, except when Spooner referred to his surveillance footage from the day of the burglary. It showed two black teenage males walking near his house from the direction of Darius' home. Their faces are difficult to identify and neither is carrying Spooner's guns.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.