Jury to decide if Belle Glade man shot two brothers in self defense

No one — not even Alton Johnson — denies he unloaded 31 rounds into a parked car, killing two brothers police say had menaced Belle Glade for years.

The question a Palm Beach County jury must decide when its returns Thursday to resume deliberations is whether Johnson fatally shot Ricardo and Antwon Terrell in self-defense or whether, as prosecutors claim, he ambushed them outside a popular hangout in February 2016 to settle a long-running feud.

In closing statements on Wednesday, Johnson’s attorneys sought to shift jurors’ focus away from their 31-year-old client by pointing to the violence, poverty and lawlessness that they said typifies life in the rural western community.

Contrary to prosecutors’ claims, Johnson couldn’t simply call sheriff’s deputies when the brothers threatened him, said Assistant Public Defender Christine Geraghty. “That’s not how things work in Belle Glade,” she said.

Unable to count on police for protection, Geraghty said Johnson had no choice but to defend himself when Ricardo Terrell told him: “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill your little brother and kill all those little people on A Street,” referring to Johnson’s family.

Assistant State Attorney Jill Richstone scoffed at Geraghty’s claims. “What was Alton supposed to do?” she asked, repeating the question Geraghty posed to jurors. “He was supposed to do what the majority of the 21,000 residents of Belle Glade do every day. Alton is supposed to follow the law. Alton is supposed to not carry firearms.”

To let Johnson avoid a conviction on two counts of first-degree murder is to condone vigilante justice, she said. “The law doesn’t allow us to kill people because they have a reputation for violence,” she said.

Geraghty sought to bolster her claims about Johnson’s actions by reminding jurors that psychologist Jethro Toomer testified that Johnson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the violence and poverty that punctuated his life in Belle Glade.

“When you’re talking about post-traumatic stress disorder, there is not intent,” said Toomer, the last witness to testify. “The intent is survival.”

Geraghty urged jurors to consider Toomer’s comments and recall Johnson’s own testimony about the fear he felt when 26-year-old Ricardo Terrell threatened his family while Terrell’s 21-year-old brother, Antwon, waited in the car.

“This case is about what was going through Alton Johnson’s mind,” she said. “Why he felt the need to do something like this.”

Richstone and fellow prosecutor Lauren Godden told jurors to focus on Johnson’s actions, which were to respond to Ricardo Terrell’s threat by going home and grabbing a loaded assault rifle. Having twice been convicted of felony drug charges, which made it illegal for him to possess a gun, he carried the rifle on the streets of Belle Glade, waiting to confront the brothers, Richstone said.

“This defendant was mad. He was taking care of business. No one’s going to mess with him,” Richstone told jurors. “This was a clear, premeditated execution murder.”

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