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Florida Man Gets Life For Mowing Down Vietnam Vet To Feel What It Was Like To Kill Someone

Justyn Pennell, 24, was “looking for someone to kill” when he fatally struck 75-year-old Michael Pratt with his Chrysler PT Cruiser in January 2020, prosecutors said.

By Dorian Geiger
Justyn Pennell Pasco Sheriff

A “callous” Florida man was dealt a life sentence last week by a circuit judge for intentionally running over a 75-year-old pedestrian, whom he left to die in the street.

Justyn Pennell, 24, will spend the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole for mowing down 75-year-old grandfather and Vietnam War veteran Michael Pratt with a Chrysler hatchback in January 2020. He’d pleaded no contest to the first-degree premeditated homicide, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.

Pennell, who appeared in an orange corrections jumpsuit, hung his head as Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Mary Handsel delivered the ruling on March 23, according to a Court TV video

“This is a tragedy that is felt by both families today,” Handsel told Pennell prior to sentencing him. “What you did was a lifetime sentence to yourself, to your mother, to your sister, and to the Pratt family…You chose the option that you chose even though you had other options.”

Pennell was behind the wheel of a PT Cruiser on Jan. 9, 2020, running errands, when he spotted Pratt walking on Aripeka Road near Old Dixie Highway in Aripeka, Florida, according to the Tampa Bay Times. He ultimately turned the car around and accelerated at the 75-year-old, striking him, prosecutors said. Pratt, who unsuccessfully tried to jump out of the vehicle’s path, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Pennell dialed 911 after his car broke down about a quarter mile from the scene of the deadly collision and confessed to dispatchers and responding deputies. Under questioning, Pennell told detectives he smiled and laughed when he saw Pratt’s face prior to fatally hitting him with the compact sport utility vehicle.

During a January 2020 press conference, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco described him as “pure evil.”

Prosecutors for the Sixth Judicial Circuit previously indicated they wouldn’t have sought the death penalty against Pennell had the case gone to trial. During his sentencing, the judge also thanked the 24-year-old for sparing Pratt’s family a lengthy trial.

“The only thing I do want to do is thank you for saving the families, both yours and the victim’s family, from this trial,” Handsel said. “We who sit in this courtroom every day know hard it is on the families, on the jurors, that have to hear these types of cases and have to make these decisions. This case would have been one of the most difficult cases for these families to have heard.” 

The judge specifically pointed to transcripts of Pennell’s 911 call and interviews investigators conducted.

“I can only imagine what it would have been if we heard it live, your voice saying these words that were, as the doctor put, callous without remorse,” Handsel said. "It would have caused such emotional distress to the families in this matter. I think Mr. Pratt’s daughter said she was dreading hearing it and I can imagine it could have been worse if she would have had to do that. For that, I thank you.”

The judge also ordered Pennell to pay several thousand dollars in various restitution fees and advised him he had 30 days to file for an appeal. A pair of bailiffs later escorted the shackled Florida man out of the courtroom. 

Pennell was released from a county detention facility on Thursday and was transferred into the custody of Florida Department of Corrections, according to online jail records obtained by Oxygen.com.

William Pura, his public defender, wasn’t immediately available for comment when contacted by Oxygen.com on Thursday morning.

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