Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Time to Kill

State v. Johnson, 2013 VT 116

By Ember S. Tilton

This is a story of murder . . . but it's no Grisham novel. Actually, it's more of a story of how to get a life sentence by not being a very "good" villain.

Edward Johnson was never cut out to be a notorious villain or a feared evil mastermind. No, Mr. Johnson was more of a looking-for-life-in-prison type of guy. His botched criminal endeavors began, like so many others, on the streets of a quaint little town smack-dab in the middle of our beloved state, in—you guessed it—the one and only, Barre, Vermont. (For all youse guys from out of state, that's pronounced "Bear-ee.")

Mr. Johnson first attempted to talk to his ex-girlfriend while she was walking down the street. Innocently enough, he asked her when she wanted to come pick up the rest of her belongings. She didn't reply. Next thing we know is that she is clasping a towel and holding it to her neck and calling 911. It seems a few minutes after the chance encounter on the street, a man with a hoodie broke into her apartment and tried to rape her, tie her up, and kill her by strangling her and stabbing her in the throat. He failed to accomplish any of these devious deeds. As he left, the victim reported her attacker said, "I'll be back to finish the job."

The victim was unable to identify Mr. Johnson as her attacker and believed it was someone in his twenties. However, a neighbor swore he saw Mr. Johnson leaving the apartment right around the time of the attack. Other people saw Mr. Johnson that day wearing a similar hoodie as the one the attacker wore. Finally, a friend of Mr. Johnson reported that Mr. Johnson asked him to lie for him and say that he was in Montpelier at the time.

Now, let's move ahead to the trial. Things don't start off so well right from the beginning. First, while the attorneys were picking a jury, one potential juror mentions that he hasn't heard about this case but he did hear about "another" case involving Mr. Johnson (without knowing for sure, there is reason to believe this case involved masturbating in a soup kitchen and later in a library). The defense attorney called for a mistrial, but the judge refused and excused the juror and gave the remaining jurors instructions to disregard the juror's statements.

The trial proceeded and the evidence mentioned above was introduced along with some DNA evidence which only failed to exclude Defendant Johnson as the potential attacker. When the State rested, defense counsel moved for judgement of acquittal. The defense argued that the identity of the attacker was not established and that intent to murder had not been established. The trial judge denied the motion and found that the state had presented evidence which the jury could reasonably rely on to convict.

Now you might notice these arguments seem somewhat opposed because they say, "some other dude did it" and "you can't prove I was trying to kill her." But, these types of alternative arguments are common in the law and the SCOV addresses each of them in turn.

First, the SCOV concludes that the juror's statement did not have a propensity to affect the jury's verdict, because no facts of the case were mentioned by the juror. Also, since the court gave a curing instruction ("forget what you heard that other juror say" . . . and . . . "this is not the evidence you are looking for." ), there was no reason to believe the jury's impartiality was affected. Even though SCOV says that this is a "close call," without some mention of how that "other case" might have been prejudicial, SCOV won't overturn this conviction.

Second, the SCOV affirms the trial court's ruling on the motion for judgment of acquittal. As to identity, the SCOV agreed that despite the lack of the in person identification, the DNA, the neighbor's testimony, the attempted fake alibi, and the matching hoodie were enough to permit a reasonable jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Johnson was the attacker. As to intent, the SCOV found that despite that statement "I'll be back," intent can be inferred from actions. Therefore, anyone who stabs a person in the neck twice is considered to have intended to kill at the time. Common sense would also support this conclusion in this writer's humble opinion. Just because you are an unsuccessful villain, doesn't mean you didn't try.

1 comment:

  1. Psst ... it was the ex-girlfriend's mother who was the victim of the attempted murder, not the ex-girlfriend.