WEST PALM BEACH — A basketball coach, a grandfather, a teacher and a mother had to strike a balance between highlighting the good and the bad about the 17-year-old boy convicted of murder.
A lifetime of trauma made Xavier Lewis impulsive and reactive, they said, which is how he found himself here, in criminal court, in the first place. But he was smart, too, and a leader — capable of being rehabilitated.
His best chance at that was in prison, said Circuit Judge Cymonie Rowe. She sentenced the teen Wednesday to 40 years for killing 32-year-old Tiana Richardson in December 2020. The penalty was more than a decade longer than his public defender asked for and two decades fewer than the prosecutor did.
Neither reacted immediately. One of Lewis’ friends flashed four fingers at the others, his eyebrows raised. Forty? They nodded.
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Lewis called Richardson to his Boynton Beach neighborhood near Federal Highway and Gateway Boulevard to buy marijuana from her on Dec. 26, 2020. Gunfire cut the deal short and left Richardson dead behind the wheel, her girlfriend screaming and fleeing down the street while Lewis ran in the opposite direction – back to his home, where he stashed the gun in the garage.
Boynton Beach police arrested Lewis at Atlantic High Schoolwhere he was a freshman, two weeks later.
“I’m not a bad person,” Lewis told the judge Wednesday, reading aloud from a letter his classmates at the jail helped him write. “I just made a regrettable decision.”
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There was never a debate over whether Lewis, then 15, pulled the trigger. Ballistics evidence, witness testimony and the teen’s own statements put him in the back seat of Richardson’s car, firing once into her head, then again and again into her back. The question was why.
Assistant Public Defender Renee Sihvola said Lewis pulled the trigger because he feared for his life — a fear she said stemmed from previous trauma and the presence of Richardson’s own gun in the car. Assistant State Attorney Jo Wilensky said Lewis lured Richardson to his neighborhood intent on killing her.
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Jurors rejected the self-defense theory, but they didn’t believe Lewis planned to kill Richardson, either. They landed instead on second-degree murder with a firearm, sparing Lewis an automatic life sentence but leaving his fate up to the discretion of the judge.
Annie Richardson asked Rowe to issue the maximum penalty. Her daughter was easy-going and in the prime of her life, she said — the middle child of a large family, a self-taught mechanic, a soon-to-be homeowner, and now a gaping hole in their lives.
“His family can still talk to him, and get all the love and affection that I’ve been robbed of,” Richardson said between tears. “I can’t get that anymore.”
Public defender urged judge to be lenient in case of Xavier Lewis
Wilensky asked Rowe to sentence the teen to 60 years in prison — not life — to account for his youth and troubled upbringing. Sihvola called the recommendation a “de-facto life sentence.”
She urged Rowe to sentence Lewis to 25 years instead, insisting that the emotional immaturity and lack of impulse control that drove his actions at 15 weren’t permanent. A teacher from the jail testified that she’d watched Lewis grow as a person and a student during his two-year stint there.
Like the jury, Rowe’s decision seemed to split the lawyers’ wishes down the middle.
Evidence of a troubled childhood, in addition to Lewis’ age, intellectual capacity and mental and emotional health, persuaded her against sentencing him to life in prison, she said. Rowe added that she believes prison time will help rehabilitate the teen, “who seems to be doing well” while incarcerated.
Lewis’ friends sent a chorus of “good luck” his way as the bailiffs began to handcuff him. His grandmother, Lily Head, called out her grandson’s name, just like she had when he’d been convicted. Her voice was weaker this time.
“Xavier,” she said. “It’s going to be all right.”
Hannah Phillips is a journalist covering public safety and criminal justice at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Xavier Lewis, arrested at 15, to spend 40 years in prison for murder