Mississippi man on Tennessee death row, gets life sentence in deal blessed by murder victim’s family

Published 3:48 pm Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The 2002 death sentence of a Mississippi man convicted of abducting and murdering a University of Memphis graduate student was changed Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole, said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich.

The family of 24-year-old victim Hillary Johnson approved the change rather than relive the case in a new sentencing hearing to which defendant Leonard Jasper ‘Sonny’ Young was entitled because his defense attorneys did not adequately represent him in the sentencing phase of his trial.

Young, now 74, agreed to the new sentence rather than a new hearing in which he would again face punishment of death, life without parole or life. His 72-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping and theft of property in the case will not change.

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D.A. Weirich told Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan Monday that the only reason the state agreed to the change of sentence was to honor the wishes of the victim’s family.

Hillary Johnson was carjacked by Young on Nov. 20, 1999, near her Midtown apartment at McLean and Linden. He stabbed her to death and hid her body in a remote wooded area off of Highway 64 near the Shelby/Fayette County line.

Young was arrested nine days later near Middleton in Hardeman County, and eventually confessed to the crime and led authorities to the student’s body.

A jury convicted Young and sentenced him to death in 2002. The conviction was upheld on appeal, but the death sentence was vacated because his defense lawyers were found to be ineffective in the sentencing phase of the two-part trial. The defense put on no proof in either the guilt phase or the penalty phase.

Young, who had 13 prior felony convictions, will be taken off Tennessee’s death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville and moved to general population status. He was represented Monday by attorney Joseph Ozment.