Crime

Update: Gulfport man pleads guilty in teen's killing

Sellers Johnson
Sellers Johnson

GULFPORT -- Sellers Johnson, 19, pleaded guilty Monday to the capital murder of 15-year-old Xavier "Xa" Cuellar.

Johnson pleaded in Harrison County Circuit Court, admitting he shot the younger teen during an armed robbery that led to a fight on Lowes Avenue the night of Oct. 22, 2013.

Judge Chris Schmidt set a Nov. 5 hearing to decide if he or a jury will decide Johnson's penalty in the sentencing phase Jan. 11. In a capital murder conviction, the sentence must be decided by a jury or a judge. The sentencing phase is similar to a trial.

Xa, pronounced Zay, was a ninth-grade student at Gulfport High. He was found wounded in the driveway of a social services organization's office. Xa died of gunshot wounds to his head and chest.

Johnson was 17 at the time. His three co-defendants were 15.

Capital murder is a killing during the commission of another felony. The maximum sentence is death by lethal injection.

Johnson is not eligible for the death penalty. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits the death penalty for convicted killers who were juveniles at the time of the crime.

Johnson faces life in prison without the possibility of parole or life with possible parole.

He had been set for trial this week.

Johnson was shackled before deputies led him into the courtroom Monday. He raised his right, handcuffed hand and swore to tell the truth.

Reading from a statement in a quiet voice, Johnson said Xa had given him and three friends a ride to Lowe's Home Improvement store but the truck stopped and he thought they were going to ride their bicycles the rest of the way.

Johnson said one of the other teens, Damon Demond Clark, had a gun and pulled it when the four got out of the truck. He said Clark decided to rob Xa, and Xa began fighting with Clark.

Johnson said Xa knocked the gun out of Clark's hand so Johnson picked the gun up.

"I shot," Johnson said. "I didn't know what to do so I continued to shoot."

Johnson said he shot Xa six times and was the last to leave the crime scene.

Truthfulness disputed

Responding to Schmidt's questions, Johnson told the judge he didn't know of a plan to "rip off" Xa and said Clark had brought the gun.

However, other teens would testify there was a plan for a robbery and Johnson knew about it and brought the gun, Assistant District Attorney Mitch Owen said.

Johnson shot Xa seven times, not six, Owen said.

Public defender Therresia Lyons told Schmidt she will file a motion for bond, requesting Johnson be allowed to spend time with his family before sentencing. Schmidt said he will consider that motion Nov. 5.

The other teens have pleaded guilty on related charges. They are now 17 years old. A date has not been set for their sentencings.

Clark faces 20 to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder.

Deaundre Deshad Holmes and Earnest Earl Pope each face up to 20 years for accessory after the fact to murder.

Xa happy-go-lucky

Friends and family have said Xa had a happy-go-lucky personality, wanted to be a fashion designer or a rapper and loved clothes and making people laugh. A school counselor described him as tender-hearted, respectful and humorous.

Xa lived in Gulfport with his mother. He enjoyed drawing, shopping with his mother, hanging out with his father and playing football and basketball.

"He was a mama's boy and didn't care if anyone knew it," his mother, Natasha Cuellar, told the Sun Herald after her son's death.

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