Johnnie Spydale Thomas Jr., a 26-year-old Bunnell resident with a long record of crime and incarceration, was sentenced to 25 years in prison this morning for bludgeoning 60-year-old Robert Emmanuel during a crack deal outside Emmanuel’s Bunnell home two years ago.
Emmanuel was living at the Palm Terrace subdivision in Bunnell. Thomas was a crack dealer who knew Emmanuel well over the years. He’d gone to Emmanuel’s home to sell him some crack on Sept. 15, 2017, days after Hurricane Irma had passed through. They were outside. They had a dispute.
As Assistant State Attorney Mark Johnson described it to the court this morning, Thomas claimed he’d already given Emmanuel the crack, and that Emmanuel had dropped it. Emmanuel claimed he’d not gotten the crack. Thomas “insisted that he get down on his hands and knees and find it.” As Emmanuel did so, Thomas walked around him, “picked up a tree branch that was freshly knocked down from the hurricane that recently passed through the area, about the size of a baseball bat,” Johnson said, quoting a witness, “and swung that branch at Mr. Emmanuel’s head like a Louisville Slugger.”
Emmanuel was hospitalized for two months, He never recovered. “He literally had the front of his skull removed in order to alleviate the pressure on his brain,” Johnson said. That Nov. 16, Emmanuel died.
After some bungling of the case by the Bunnell Police Department, Thomas was eventually charged with second degree murder while already at the county jail on a fleeing and eluding charge. He was subsequently sentenced on a federal drug case to seven years in prison. He’d served a year and a half in Florida state prison on a 2012 case in Flagler, when he illegally fired a weapon and fled police.
Other than the attorneys in the case, Thomas alone addressed the court today, reading a written statement. He wanted to address Emmanuel’s family–some of whom were in the audience, on one side of the courtroom, just as some of Thomas’s family members and friends were, on the other side of the courtroom.
“I can’t find the right words to convey how deeply sorry I am for the incident,” he said, describing how he’d spent many days and nights unable to make sense of what had happened, “why couldn’t I just be a man and walk away.” He said he’d confused the meanings of strength and weakness, thinking that strength was aggression, walking away was weakness.
“It takes strength to walk away from conflict and two years ago that’s something I did not have, truth be told, it was the definition of weakness,” he said. He was afraid Emmanuel would “overpower” him, words Johnson would later ridicule: Thomas was a strapping man, Emmanuel was old before his time, frail, unable to overcome much–and he was on his hands and knees.
“I hope the family can forgive me,” Thomas concluded. “I think about my actions and what got me here today and I’m so ashamed. At a young age I haven’t fully lived my life yet and this situation is something I’m going to have to pay for the majority of my life with. Thank you for letting me share.”
Johnson didn’t buy it. He said the attack was willful, and asked the judge to sentence Thomas to the maximum 25 years.
Thomas’s attorney, Maria Rogers, whose argument closely echoed Thomas’s statement–with which she almost certainly had a hand–blamed the incident on Thomas’s circumstances: “There is a subculture he has been subjected to, he was born into the wrong environment,” she told Circuit Judge Terence Perkins, describing Thomas’s life as a “trap,” as susceptible to “the allure of money and drugs,” as a cycle he was stuck in. “He will spend his time in prison breaking that cycle.” She asked the judge for the minimum in the range, 15 years.
It was Perkins’s turn not to buy it. To the extent that the incident was not Thomas’s fault, Perkins said, that it was due to his upbringing or his environment, “I don’t accept that, I just don’t accept that, I don’t accept that Mr. Thomas was destined to do this, that he had no control over it,” the judge said. “Mr. Thomas has his own free will. I think he has his own hopes and aspirations and this was a course that he consciously pursued that resulted in this, and it was cold-blooded and callous, and I don’t know how to describe it any other way than that.”
In October Thomas agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter with a weapon, limiting his exposure to 25 years. He could have faced up to life in prison on the original charge of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 25 years, and to time served on two other fleeing and eluding charges. There was limited reaction in the gallery: tears had dropped earlier, when Johnson had described the killing. Now, someone was attempting to capture Thomas’s sentencing on a phone and was told by a bailiff to stop. He was fingerprinted and ushered out, his two years at the county jail about to end as he will be transferred to federal prison, then state prison.