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Crime & Courts

Florida teen gets life for murdering 2 British tourists


March 26: Shawn Tyson enters the court room on during the third day of his murder trial in Sarasota County Court in Sarasota, Fla. (AP)

A Florida teenager has been sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder Wednesday in the shooting of two young British tourists last April in a case that generated brash tabloid headlines in the U.K. press.

Shawn Tyson, 17, sat stone-faced as the jury's guilty verdict was read. It came after two hours of deliberations. Because he is under 18, Tyson was ineligible for the death penalty and instead faced a mandatory life sentence.

During testimony, witnesses said Tyson shot James Cooper, 25, and James Kouzaris, 24, last April 16. The two men were vacationing in Sarasota and spent an evening drinking when they got lost and walked into a housing project where Tyson lived. Details of their deaths have gripped the British news media; tabloids there have written stories saying the men were "slaughtered" in a Florida "ghetto."

Kouzaris was from Northampton and Cooper was from Hampton Lucy, Warwick. Both were considered fun-loving world travelers by friends -- but also smart and cautious. Authorities said both were drunk when they got lost and wandered just before 3 a.m. into the housing project where Tyson lived.

Witnesses testified that Tyson told them he saw two "crackers" -- his phrase for white people -- walking through the neighborhood and that he intended to rob them. The tourists said they didn't have any money and begged Tyson to let them go home. The men also told Tyson that they were lost.

"Since you ain't got no money, then I have something for your ass," Tyson recounted to a witness, then added that he shot the men several times.

The tourists' bodies were found shirtless on the street and their baggy pants were pulled down to their thighs. Both men still had their wallets and did in fact have money; Cooper also had a cellphone and camera in his pants pocket. Authorities later found that Kouzaris' blood alcohol level was 0.243 and Cooper's was 0.214 -- well past Florida's legal limit for intoxication when driving, which is 0.08.

During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky told the jury that the case was about "opportunities."

"For James Cooper and James Kouzaris, they had seized an opportunity to travel abroad," Brodsky said. "Shawn Tyson seized upon an opportunity to rob and kill two men."

In the end, Tyson was his own undoing. Prosecutors presented several witnesses who said that Tyson told friends about the shootings in the hours after the killings, then asked friends to hide the murder weapon and bury bullets. A DNA expert said Tyson's skin cells were found on Cooper's jeans.

Tyson maintained to police that he was at home during the murders. But witnesses spotted him crawling into his window shortly after hearing gunshots.

Tyson did not testify. His attorneys called only one witness, a crime scene technician, and questioned him briefly. Defense attorneys also tried to discredit the witnesses by saying that many of them had criminal records and cooperated with detectives in order to avoid jail time.

The defense also said that no one saw Tyson shoot Cooper and Kouzaris.

Authorities say Tyson wasn't alone the night of the shooting; police have not charged the second suspect because they don't have enough evidence. That person is currently in prison on unrelated charges.

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