To a certain extent, Petersburg Circuit Judge Dennis M. Martin Sr. agreed with 16-year-old Tyron Clanton’s attorney: The boy, convicted of executing two men in what amounted to a gang hit, was a product of his environment.
He was the eldest of five children to a single mother, had no adult role models, was physically abused as a child, and was exposed for much of his young life to violence, drugs and gangs while living in subsidized housing, according to authorities and Clanton’s attorney.
A person would have to be delusional, Martin said, to believe that those negative influences wouldn’t have a damaging, if not destructive effect, on a child’s life.
“We keep putting our children in these traumatic situations,” the judge, who is black, said of certain segments of Petersburg’s African American community. “This is why we have these problems” with intractable crime and violence in the city, he said.
“I recognize you’re a child, and what happened to you as a child,” the judge told the teen.
Notwithstanding those mitigating circumstances, the judge said he couldn’t overlook the pain, anger and loss that Clanton’s actions inflicted on the families of the two men the teen killed on orders from his O.G., or “original gangster,” on July 18, 2018.
The men he fatally shot were two of Petersburg’s 17 homicide victims last year, a record for this city of 32,000.
The slayings of Bernard Spratley, 33, and Leon Lyle, 24, left their collective 10 children without fathers, family members noted in testimony.
Less than an hour before they were killed, Clanton and his two friends, Talik Warren and Austin Evans, had been socializing with both victims, smoking marijuana and getting tattoos before they all decided to drive to Pecan Acres, a federally subsidized housing complex.
“He assassinated the men,” Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Ken Blalock said of Clanton, who at just 15 years and 4 months old was a member of a localized version of the notorious Crips gang. “He knew the whole ride that he was going to kill” them.
After Clanton delivered a tearful apology in Petersburg Circuit Court, Martin sentenced the teen to 118 years in prison with all but 28 years suspended, which he will serve in an adult prison after he turns 21.
Until then, Clanton will be committed as a serious offender to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, which amounts to an additional five years of incarceration.
There, he will receive treatment and be afforded an opportunity “to mature in a positive environment,” said his attorney, Mary K. Martin, who urged the court to craft a “blended” sentenced of juvenile and adult punishment.
“He was a child when this happened,” Martin told the court. “His future has not yet been written in stone.”
A review hearing will be held in two years to determine whether Clanton will remain in juvenile custody until he’s 21 or be sent directly to the Department of Corrections.
The adult punishment decided by the judge was near the low end of state sentencing guidelines calculated for Clanton, which recommended a punishment of between 25 years and five months and 43 years and three months. The maximum punishment as an adult is two life terms plus 20 years.
In June, a Petersburg jury found Clanton guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and two firearm counts.
According to testimony and corroborating evidence presented at trial, Clanton, Warren and Evans were all at a home shared by Lyle and his girlfriend; Spratley was also there. The group was smoking marijuana, and some were getting tattoos provided by Lyle.
At one point during the gathering, the three teens left with Spratley and Lyle, with Lyle driving and Spratley in the front passenger seat. The three teens got in the back.
Lyle and Spratley had agreed to drive the teens to Pecan Acres, where Clanton once lived and had friends who lived in the complex. Clanton would frequently hang out with them there.
After Lyle stopped at the south end of the complex in his gold Honda in the 900 block of Augusta Avenue, Clanton, who was sitting behind Spratley, stepped out of the car but then leaned back in and shot Lyle in the back of the head. He then shot Spratley in the back of the neck; the round went up through his head.
Clanton, Warren and Evans then ran from the car toward the complex.
Shortly after the shootings, Warren asked Clanton why he shot the men, and Clanton said “that his O.G. told him to do it,” Warren testified at the trial.
Clanton appeared to inadvertently confirm a gang component to the killings when he told detectives in an interview — without any prompting — that Lyle “wasn’t allowed” in Pecan Acres.
Spratley, mortally wounded, survived long enough to provide police who had arrived at the scene with a general description of the three juveniles who were riding in the car.
During the investigation, detectives obtained photos and videos from Clanton’s phone and Facebook page that showed him with the murder weapon in the days leading to the killing, along with him and other teens flashing Crips gang signs.
In one photo, the gun can be seen tucked in Clanton’s waistband about 7 p.m. on July 19 in Pecan Acres — just a few hours before the slayings.
Police determined that the murder weapon — a .45-caliber Glock 21 semiautomatic pistol — had been stolen a week earlier from the home of then-Petersburg police officer Marqueth Bonner. The officer, who had a distant family connection to Warren, had agreed to let the boy stay with him for several months after learning he was in trouble and needed a place to live.
In August, both Warren and Evans each pleaded guilty to being accessories after the fact to murder and were sentenced to one year in jail.
On Tuesday, the judge told Clanton he has a lot of time to serve, but his future depends largely on how well he does in juvenile custody over the next three to five years.
“You have to have hope,” Martin told the teen. “You got to keep going [by getting therapy and education].”
The judge challenged the boy to “overcome your situation” so that the two men he killed will not have “died in vain.”
“That’s the way you say you’re truly sorry,” Martin said. “It’s up to you to do it. You got to believe you can, and you got to want to.”