America’s youngest convicted murderer is about to become a free man.
Curtis Jones and his sister, Catherine, admitted to killing their father’s girlfriend, Sonya Speights, in 1999. He was 12 and she was 13.
Initial signs pointed to jealousy as the motive but a closer look at documents and child welfare reports revealed the siblings targeted Speights, their father and another male relative living with them, whom they claimed was s3xually abusing them.
The plan was to k!ll all three when they realized their cries for help were going unheeded.
A few days after the organization now known as the Department of Children and Families acknowledged signs of s3xual abuse but closed the investigation, Catherine was showering when she heard the bathroom door open. The relative had come in to watch her. He masturbated while she cowered crying in the corner of the bathtub, Catherine said.
Later that night she made an entry in her journal: “I’m gonna k!ll everybody.”
According to interviews and court documents, when Catherine told Curtis of her plot, he said he would help: They would use the 9mm semi-automatic their father kept in his bedroom.
But everything fell apart after they shot and k!lled Speights. Frightened, they ran into the woods near their Port St. John home and hid until police located them in the morning.
They became the youngest children in the country’s history to be charged as adults for first-degree murder. Facing the prospect of life in prison, they pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and were sentenced to 18 years in prison followed by probation for life.
Before leaving the courthouse, Curtis turned to his attorney, Cocoa Beach’s Tony Hernandez, and asked if he could bring his Nintendo video game with him to prison.
Now 29 years old and sporting a couple of prison tattoos — a panther on his left arm and the word “Mob” on his stomach — Curtis leaves prison an ordained minister with very little knowledge of the real world. He also leaves with the burden of a lifetime of probation, which one lawyer described to me as having one foot on a banana peel and one foot in the Department of Corrections.
“Oh my, that’s a world of trouble,” William Dillon said this week from California. The former Satellite Beach man spent the better part of three decades in prison for a murder he did not commit before being exonerated through DNA evidence. “They are gonna have to have their heads on real tight. They’ll never make it unless they’re pure to the core. I’m not trying to judge them.”
Because the siblings went in so young, he explained, they may give in to the urge to get back the time they feel is owed them.
Probation basically means they risk going back to prison for any slip up or violation of the conditions agreed to.
“They’re going to have to have mentors,” Dillon said. “They knew very little about the world going in. The system doesn’t prepare you for freedom.”
Some of the conditions include paying $50 per month toward the cost of supervision after the first 18 months, not using intoxicants to excess, not moving without consulting his probation officer among a dozen other stipulations. Of course, Curtis and Catherine can hire an attorney to seek to modify their probation or request an early termination of it after some time.
Curtis, unlike Catherine, has chosen not to speak with the media. Florida State University Law Professor Paolo Annino, who worked for years trying to get clemency for the young pair, told me Curtis has asked him not to comment about his situation.
Catherine, who found love and marriage via a pen pal, is due to be released sometime next month.
Brief taste of freedom
Curtis did have an expensive taste of freedom in 2004 when he and several other youths ran from a juvenile detention facility after Hurricane Frances knocked down the outer fence. He was caught 24 hours later and it added 318 days to his sentence.
Other than that, he has never lived on his own.
For Dillon one of the toughest adjustments was pretty obvious regarding all the technology he had to learn. But the second-most difficult adjustment might surprise some.
“The frame of mind of people on the outside is also very different,” he said. “People do things in disrespectful ways outside. Inside, it’s very different.”
You don’t often a.ssociate state prisoners with being respectful but that’s how they have to be — with those in authority anyway.
So what advice would he give someone who has grown up in prison, spent most of his life around criminals and who really knows very little about the world?
“I would tell him to stay out of the bars, don’t get high,” Dillon said. “The main thing is to take things real slow. Just move at a slow pace until you adjust.”