Man who admits capital murder of teen awaits sentencing


GULFPORT -- A mitigation expert will be hired to help defend the rights of a man who was 17 when he committed capital murder in the killing of 15-year-old Joshua "Xa" Cuellar.

Sellers Johnson, now 19, pleaded guilty in October after three co-defendants had pleaded guilty to lesser crimes.

Gulfport police and one of Johnson's co-defendants testified against him Thursday in a sentencing hearing in Harrison County Circuit Court.

The hearing will resume in June after defense attorneys hire an expert to show reasons why Johnson should not spend the rest of his life in prison.

The penalties for capital murder are death or life without parole. However, U.S. Supreme Court rulings don't allow the death penalty for people who were juveniles when they committed a capital murder, or a sentence of life without parole until they have a hearing. A second option is life with eligibility for parole. A hearing is required to make that decision.

Capital murder is a killing that occurs during another felony crime. The underlying crime in this case is robbery.

Judge Chris Schmidt will decide the penalty.

Shot seven times

Xa (pronounced "Zay") was a ninth-grade student at Gulfport High. Family and friends have said he was happy-go-lucky and wanted to be a fashion designer or rapper.

He had given a ride to Sellers and three 15-year-olds Oct. 22, 2013.

Johnson shot Xa seven times during a robbery.

Johnson's co-defendants, all from Gulfport, await sentencing. Each is now 17.

Damon Demond Clark pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He faces 20 to 40 years in prison.

Earnest Pope and Deaundre Deshad Holmes pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact to capital murder. They each face up to 20 years.

What happened

Xa had borrowed his grandfather's truck to go see his father, according to his mother, Natasha Cuellar. She has told the Sun Herald she last spoke with her son by cellphone about 5 p.m. as she left work and drove to school.

Court testimony showed Xa was giving acquaintances a ride in the bed of the truck to Lowe's Home Improvement. When he stopped the truck on Lowes Boulevard, the teens got out and tried to rob him, and Clark pulled out a gun. Xa fought back but Johnson threw him to the ground and attacked him. When the fight ended, Johnson got the gun, walked back to Xa and began shooting.

Holmes, testified Thursday he ran away, along with Pope and Clark, when Johnson began shooting, Smith said.

Prosecutors and the judge questioned Johnson's truthfulness at his plea hearing.

Johnson said there was no plan to "rip off" Xa and said he shot Xa only six times.