BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — From the beginning, the District Attorney’s office wasn’t willing to accept anything but decades in prison for the two men arrested in the 2017 shooting death of 3-year-old Major Sutton.
The boy’s slaying shook the community. Gunmen kicked open an apartment door and opened fire, killing Major and wounding his brother, then 5, and pregnant mother.
Those responsible needed to be locked up for a substantial period of time, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Kinzel said Wednesday.
At first, suspects Tyrone Johnson, 25, and David Palms, 23, refused to consider an offer. Their attitude changed, however, after they were recaptured following an audacious escape from Lerdo Jail last year, Kinzel said.
The escape could be used to show consciousness of guilt and further solidify the prosecution’s case, he said.
Johnson faces 42 years and eight months and Palms 27 years in prison. Sentencing is set for Sept. 21.
“Sometimes resolving a case for 40 years against someone who committed a crime is the right thing for a case,” said Kinzel, adding input from Major’s family was taken into consideration.
Kern County Public Defender Peter Kang, whose office represented Johnson, said he faces a lengthy, but determinate, prison term.
Kang expressed sympathy for Major’s family.
“This has been a sad and long case,” he said. “Even after four years, dealing with the emptiness of losing a loved one can still feel intense and overwhelming.
“This plea bargain won’t offer complete closure to the grief of losing a child, but it will help to close a chapter and allow healing to begin.”
David Evers, Palms’ attorney, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Every case has unique factors — and risks — prosecutors must consider, Kinzel said. While declining to go into the risks of this particular case, Kinzel said the suspects were not immediately identified, and information trickled in over a period of weeks and months.
Additionally, there were changes to the law in the five years since the shooting occurred, some impacting gang enhancements and felony murder, the special circumstances alleged in the crime.
“In every case, especially murder cases, we’re always looking to get what is right for the case, what’s right for the community and a lot of times that does require going to trial,” Kinzel said. “In this case there had been a lot of things that had happened since the crime occurred and since it was charged.”
Under the felony murder rule, defendants could be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life terms in prison in cases where they weren’t the actual killer but committed a dangerous felony such as robbery or burglary that resulted in the death of another person.
The law changed in 2019 to require a person to actually commit or aid in a killing, or have the intent to kill, during the commission of a crime in order to be charged with murder.
The evidence prosecutors accumulated eventually included eyewitness identification and ballistics and DNA evidence, Kinzel said. The case comprised 100 different pieces of circumstantial evidence, compiled by the Bakersfield Police Department, that helped establish guilt, he said.
“In this case we had a scenario which is somewhat unusual, where we had built a case that was so strong that a defendant was willing to take 42 years in state prison rather than risk going to trial,” he said. “And so when we have that much that we are able to get without the risks that are incumbent or inherent in the trial process, that’s something that we have to consider.”
Police have said the shooting was gang-related and Major an apparent unintended victim. Palms and Johnson are members of the East Side Crips street gang, and Major’s mother was living with a rival gang member.
Conversation with Major’s family went on for months. They want justice, Kinzel said, and they deserve it.
From the night of the shooting, Major’s mother did everything she could to protect her children, “and she had gunshot wounds to support it,” Kinzel said.
“I think she did everything she can do and everything she should have done to make sure that her and her family receive the justice that Major deserved,” he said.