A Milwaukee man knew exactly what he was doing when he accused his teenage neighbor of burglary and fired a bullet into the boy's chest, a jury decided Friday, in a verdict that essentially guarantees 76-year-old John Henry Spooner will die behind bars.
The same jury concluded Wednesday that Spooner was guilty of first-degree intentional homicide. That verdict advanced the trial to a second phase in which the jurors were asked to determine whether he was mentally ill at the moment he pulled the trigger.
Two doctors testified Friday that Spooner has anger issues and aggressive impulses, but that he was neither delusional nor detached from reality when he killed 13-year-old Darius Simmons last year.
Spooner never denied killing his next-door neighbor. He testified that he believed Darius was the one of the burglars who had broken into his home two days earlier and stolen four shotguns that had deep sentimental value. He also testified that he wanted to kill Darius' brother after the older boy ran into the street to help his dying brother. But Spooner didn't fire because he might endanger other people around them.
Dr. Robert Rawski, a court-appointed forensic psychologist, said that level of recognition shows how clearly Spooner was thinking at that moment.
"He opted not to (shoot) because there as a couple and a child in the distance. He did not want to chance it," Rawski said, recalling his interview with Spooner last year. "This is an individual who ... recognized the environment around him. His anger was very specific. He had inflicted injury in his perceived justice."
Police searched Darius' home after the shooting but found no stolen weapons.
If the jury had found Spooner mentally incompetent he could have faced life in a mental institution. Instead he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The judge has the option to set a possible parole date. Wisconsin does not have the death penalty.
The strongest piece of evidence against Spooner was footage from his own surveillance cameras, which showed him confronting Darius on the sidewalk and pointing a handgun at him. The boy backpedaled a few steps with his hands up. Spooner then exchanged words with Darius' mother on her porch off screen, and then turned and fired one shot at Darius' chest.
The teen fled, and Spooner fired a second shot that missed. He tried to shoot a third time but the gun jammed.
Darius died a few moments later across the street, in his mother's arms.
Spooner, who testified against his attorney's advice, told the jury he killed Darius because he wanted his guns back. Prosecutor Mark Williams suggested Spooner was out for revenge.
"I wouldn't call it revenge," Spooner replied. "I would call it justice."
First published July 19 2013, 11:03 AM