Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Impending Execution of Christopher Thomas Johnson: Open Deliberation

Christopher Thomas Johnson sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Alabama on 20 October 2011. I suspect there is effectively zero chance the execution will be stayed. Before opposing this execution or standing mute, I will allow you to deliberate the case via comments to this post.

I present below the State's case for guilt as summarized in the appellate decision Johnson v. State of Alabama (2009). As usual, I have removed the many legal references. In some cases below, the ellipses represent substantial redactions of the appellate decision.
Christopher Thomas Johnson appeals his guilty-plea conviction for capital murder [for] murder of an individual under the age of 14, and his sentence of death. Johnson's appeal is before this court in an unusual procedural posture that must be explained before this court turns to the merits of his appeal.

On October 28, 2005, Johnson was indicted by an Escambia County grand jury on the charge of capital murder for the death of his six-month-old son, Elias Ocean Johnson. J. Todd Sterns and Charles E. Johns were appointed to represent Johnson. Johnson's trial began on December 4, 2006. After both sides had rested their cases and during the jury charge conference, Johnson invoked his right to represent himself and moved the circuit court to allow him to reopen his case and to testify. The circuit court conducted a thorough colloquy ... to determine whether Johnson knew the consequences and dangers of representing himself and to ensure that Johnson's decision was knowing and voluntary. After determining that Johnson's decision to represent himself was knowing and voluntary, the circuit court granted Johnson's motion to represent himself and ordered counsel to remain as standby counsel.

The circuit court then allowed Johnson to reopen his case and to testify on his own behalf. Johnson testified that he intentionally murdered his six-month-old son because he hated his wife. After testifying, Johnson moved the circuit court to allow him to change his plea from not guilty to guilty. The circuit court then engaged Johnson in a thorough colloquy ... during which the circuit court informed Johnson of the rights he would be waiving by pleading guilty and questioned Johnson to ensure that his decision was knowing and voluntary. After determining that Johnson's decision was knowing and voluntary and not the result of any coercion, threats, or promises, the circuit court allowed Johnson to plead guilty to capital murder. The cause was then submitted to the jury ... and the jury found Johnson guilty of capital murder.

Following the jury's verdict, the penalty phase of Johnson's trial began. The State submitted that the aggravating circumstance of the offense (Elias's murder) was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, ... and adopted the evidence presented during the guilt phase. Johnson, representing himself, presented no evidence in mitigation and urged the jury to recommend a sentence of death. After the circuit court properly instructed the jury regarding the penalty-phase process of weighing the aggravating circumstances and the mitigating circumstances, the jury unanimously recommended that Johnson be sentenced to death. The circuit court accepted the jury's recommendation and sentenced Johnson to death.

After being sentenced to death, Johnson invoked his state-law right to represent himself on appeal, and he refused to file a notice of appeal. ... On February 21, 2007, the circuit court entered an order of appeal ... and Johnson's case was appealed to this court for automatic review. ...

Although Johnson has chosen not to file an appellate brief on his behalf, his decision not to do so does not end this court's review. Because Johnson was convicted of a capital crime and was sentenced to death, his appeal is automatic, and this court must review the propriety of his decision to waive his right to present a brief on appeal, the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain his conviction, and the propriety of his sentence of death.

First, this court must review the circuit court's finding that Johnson's decision to represent himself on appeal and his waiver of appellate counsel was knowing and voluntary. ... This court must also review whether Johnson's decision to forgo filing a brief on appeal was knowing and voluntary. ...

... Based on the extensive colloquy between the circuit court and Johnson, this court is convinced that Johnson "not only knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily, waived his right to counsel, but also his right to present issues to this court as it reviews his conviction and his sentence of death." This court is further convinced that when Johnson "decided to forgo presentation of any issues in the review of his conviction and death sentence he could appreciate his position and he knew that his life was at stake." Therefore, there was no error in allowing Johnson to represent himself on appeal.

Next, this court must review the sufficiency of the State's evidence to sustain Johnson's guilty-plea conviction. In Alabama, "[a] defendant who is indicted for a capital offense may plead guilty to it, but the state must in any event prove the defendant's guilt of the capital offense beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury." ...
At trial, the State established that Johnson's wife, Dana, gave birth to their son, Elias Ocean Johnson, on August 22, 2004. In February 2005, the Johnsons lived in a duplex at 103 Horner Street in Atmore, Alabama.

On February 19, 2005, Suzanne Mims and Jason Mims, along with their infant, Sophie, arrived at the Johnsons' duplex around 8:30 p.m. to play board games. While playing board games, the Johnsons and the Mims drank alcoholic beverages. At approximately 1:00 a.m., the Mims

At around 9:00 a.m., Dana woke up and found Johnson and Elias on the couch in the duplex. Dana stated that Elias had bruises on him and that he appeared to be dead. At that point, Dana ran over to feel Elias. Dana testified that Elias felt cool so she tried to check his pulse; however, she could not find one. Worried about Elias, Dana grabbed the telephone and called emergency 911.

Tim Grabill, a paramedic with Atmore Ambulance Service, received a call to go to the Johnsons' duplex. When Grabill and his partner, Jareth Heibert, arrived at the duplex, Johnson was holding Elias. Grabill observed that Elias was "very pale, limp and his extremities were cool to the touch." Based on Elias's appearance, Heibert carried him to the ambulance where the paramedics checked his vital signs. At that point, Elias was not breathing and had no heartbeat. Although Grabill believed that Elias was already dead, he performed CPR and rushed Elias to the emergency room at Atmore Hospital. When they arrived at the hospital, Grabill carried Elias into the emergency room, still performing CPR, placed him on a trauma bed, and turned him over to Dr. Steven Michael Sharp.

Dr. Sharp testified that Elias appeared to be dead when he arrived at the hospital. Dr. Sharp described several injuries he observed on Elias's body. Specifically, Dr. Sharp noticed several bruises on Elias's face, a bruise on the bridge of Elias's nose, and ruptured blood vessels around Elias's eyes and chin. Dr. Sharp also noticed a bite mark on one of Elias's arms.

Although Elias appeared to be dead, the hospital staff attempted to resuscitate him. Because Elias was unresponsive, Dr. Sharp cleared his airway and placed an endotracheal tube in his throat so that medical personnel "could breath for the child." While attempting to place the endotracheal tube, Dr. Sharp noticed blood in Elias's mouth. Dr. Sharp also testified that Elias had blood in his stomach. After all attempts to resuscitate Elias failed, he was pronounced dead.

Investigator Chuck Brooks and Police Chief Jason Dean, with the Atmore Police Department, went to Atmore Hospital to investigate the circumstances of Elias's death. One of the law-enforcement officers asked Johnson and Dana to come to the police station and give statements relating to the death of their child. Dana rode to the police station with a member of her church, and Johnson rode to the police station with Chief Dean. During the ride to the police station, Johnson spontaneously stated that he had something to do with Elias's death.

Once at the police station, Johnson gave a statement to Investigator Brooks and Irene Johnson, a social worker with the Alabama Department of Human Resources. After being informed of and waiving his Miranda rights, Johnson indicated that Elias had been crying so Johnson laid on top of him to try to quiet the child. When Elias did not stop crying, Johnson stuck his fingers in the child's mouth and hit him. Johnson stated that "[l]ast night was the hardest that [he] ever hit [Elias and he was] pretty sure [Elias's death was his] fault." Johnson also stated that after the event that night, he did not think that he had seriously injured Elias.

Dr. Kathleen Entice, a medical examiner who was formerly with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, performed the autopsy on Elias and testified that it would be reasonable to estimate that Elias had suffered 85 separate injuries, including a bite mark on his arm. Dr. Entice testified that Elias had multiple bruises on his face and head. She stated that both of Elias's ears were swollen and bruised which was consistent with a "boxing blow" and squeezing. Dr. Entice testified that Elias's lower lip was swollen and bloody from a blunt-force injury. Dr. Entice explained that Elias had three impact injuries to his forehead. She informed the jury that Elias's ethmoid bone, which is in the sinuses, was broken and that Elias's sinuses were full of blood. Dr. Entice testified that Elias had deep contusions on his head and that his brain had hemorrhaged as a result of blunt-force trauma. Dr. Entice also testified that Elias had hemorrhages in both eyes and had injuries to his inner lips and nose that indicated that he had been smothered by the "forceful covering, sealing off [of] his mouth and nose." According to Dr. Entice, Elias's injuries had been inflicted within 24 hours of his death. Dr. Entice finally testified that in her opinion, Elias died as a result of blunt-force trauma and smothering.

In addition to the State's evidence, Johnson testified that he intentionally murdered his son because he hated his wife. Johnson explained that he would have left his wife long before the murder if it had not been for Elias. According to Johnson, he did not want "to worry about [his wife's] threats of putting [him] in jail for alimony or child support . . . so [he] intentionally inflicted wounds on [Elias] that caused [Elias's] life [to expire]." Johnson stated that his final words to Elias were: "You go see Jesus." Thereafter, Johnson pleaded guilty.

The State's evidence, coupled with Johnson's guilty-plea and in-court confession, overwhelmingly established that Johnson intentionally murdered a person under the age of 14 ... Because the State met its burden of proof, Johnson is not entitled to any relief. ...

Accordingly, Johnson's conviction and his sentence of death are affirmed.

I find no one arguing Johnson is innocent. I did however find this poorly-sourced article providing some additional insight into Johnson's courtroom behavior.
An Atmore man convicted last year in the 2005 murder of his infant son begged a judge on Wednesday to sentence him to death. The judge complied.
Authorities said they had to force defendant Christopher Thomas Johnson to take a shower before they chained his feet and hands, sat him in a wheelchair and rolled him into an Escambia County courtroom for the sentencing hearing.
"The look on my wife's face at the trial and the last thing she said to me was enough: 'I hope you die soon,'" Johnson said at the start of Wednesday's hearing. "The family agrees. I deserve death, and I really don't know what's to debate here."
Johnson testified that there were no mitigating circumstances, and denied a report that he was sexually abused as a child.
In December 2006, an Escambia County jury convicted Johnson, 34, of killing his 6-month-old son, Elias Ocean Johnson, when the baby would not stop crying on Feb. 20, 2005. According to testimony, Johnson lay on top of the baby, jammed his fingers down the baby's throat and beat him to death.
Forensic tests presented during the trial showed 85 separate injuries to the child.
Johnson said during trial that he didn't want the baby to wake his wife, but had also testified that he wanted out of his marriage, hated his wife and killing the baby was the best way to hurt his wife and avoid having to pay child support. He asked jurors to recommend a sentence of death, and they granted that request.
Johnson entered the courtroom with wet hair, unshaven and shackled to a wheelchair, saying loudly he needed to speak with a federal agent about his treatment in the Escambia County Jail. Johnson, who fired his court-appointed attorneys at the close of his 2006 trial and chose to represent himself, complained about the forced shower.
Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith said in an interview that Johnson failed to comply with correctional officers, refused to take a shower and sat on the top bunk in his cell, beating his head against a wall.
When officers entered to remove him from the cell, he resisted and a Taser stun gun was used on him, Smith said. Officers videotaped their treatment of Johnson after that incident, Smith said.
Officers believed Johnson would become disorderly in court and shackled him to a wheelchair for the trip from his cell to the hearing, Smith said. Johnson chose to remain in the chair once he arrived at court, the sheriff said.
Once in the courtroom, Johnson leaned toward an attorney, Wade Hartley, who was appointed to give him any legal advice if needed, and said: "This has got to be your worst case this year."
Johnson complained to Escambia County Circuit Judge Bradley Byrne that he had not been given all of a pre-sentencing report, saying that a psychological report was missing. Byrne said the report was one completed by a witness for the defense, and Johnson had the whole document.
Prosecutors said attempts to send notice of the hearing to the child's mother, Johnson's 25-year-old wife, Dana Johnson, were unsuccessful.
Byrne read the list of factors the law requires judges to consider in passing sentence, finding there was an aggravating circumstance in that the killing was particularly heinous and cruel. Byrne said he found possible reason to show mercy: a report that Johnson had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child. Johnson responded that the claims of sexual abuse were not true.
A woman identifying herself as Johnson's mother interrupted the hearing, and asked to be allowed to testify about lies Johnson was telling.
Byrne granted her request, allowing her sworn testimony. Eylene Pack said Johnson was her son, and he was sexually abused by her brother.
Authorities attempted to confirm her story by getting court records from Mobile where the brother was charged, but found only that the man had been charged with sexual abuse and sodomy in the 1980s. The charges were later dismissed, and no alleged victim was identified.
Though reports indicated Johnson had abused drugs, he used the hearing to deny doing so.
Byrne said Johnson was "ill-equipped to be a parent" and made "terrible decisions" on the night of the child's death. The judge called Johnson's firing of his attorneys and subsequent inconsistent statements manipulative.
Johnson then accused prosecutors, investigators and defense attorneys of being manipulative as well, and wiped his nose on a copy of his psychological report.
Byrne said he had agonized over his decision in the case. "If anyone got up in court and testified as you did, it would be an easy call for this court," Byrne said. "As much as I've wrestled with it, you've manufactured this situation, dismissing your attorneys. But it is not my job to go into your mind and consider your motives for doing so. ... I've got to accept the evidence presented, and the testimony presented, and the appropriate sentence is the death penalty."
District Attorney Steve Billy said the case had been particularly difficult to prosecute and had taken an emotional toll on everyone involved. "I'm personally glad it's over," Billy said. "It has been a long, difficult case, but the punishment is appropriate for the crime."
Pack said she was not satisfied. "Since it can be proved that he lied about (the sexual abuse), I think he lied throughout the whole trial," Pack said.
Ladies and gentlemen of the skeptical jury, you may now deliberate the case.


Anonymous said...

Not much to deliberate. I oppose the death penalty on principle, but as long as we have it, if the defendant himself prefers death to life in a cage, I'm not going to argue with him. -- J

Anonymous said...

I only see five possible things to debate.

First, whether there is sufficient evidence to convict without his own testimony. Based on the summary from the court, which is always suspect as it presents things in the cleanest possible fashion, there is enough evidence that a jury could have found him guilty without his changing his testimony.

Second, if found guilty and without the added confession testimony, could the jury have found him guilty of capital murder justifying the death penalty? Being potentially drunk or drugged at the time of the crime could be a mitigating factor, but he has clear memory of what happened -- he laid on top to stop the baby from crying. So he was not completely out of it...and given the horrific nature of the death for the six month old baby, I would have no trouble applying the maximum sentence if I was on the jury. Heck, even the dry recitation above sounds horrifying, can't imagine the jury hearing it repeatedly as they dissected the elements.

Third, his alleged sexual abuse was not considered as a mitigating factor -- but it's also not clear if that mitigation would have swayed the jury. He did not sexually molest the child, he beat him...a rough childhood alone does not necessarily excuse a heinous crime later, unless a more direct link can be made (sexually abused often become sexual abusers, for instance).

Fourth, it's obvious at the end of his trial that he decided he wanted to die rather than risk life in prison -- which amounts to suicide-by-state, and whether that should be allowed could be debated, although not a very interesting debate. His mental state by that point is somewhat questionable -- perhaps aggravated by his time in prison, forcing him to shower and get cleaned up for the trial, being tasered, etc. But not enough, in my view, to say that he suddenly went bonkers and was no longer capable of understanding things. He asked about missing reports, he understood elements of sentencing, he was "with it" enough to realize that a mitigating factor would take death off the table and to negate that factor to ensure death was still ON the table. Is there a debatable point that if someone actually is trying to kill themself in this way, that it should be banned? Obviously not, as that would then be a claim for anyone nearing a guilty verdict. Act nuts and ensure the penalty goes away. I accept he's distraught; I don't accept he's not capable of understanding what he's doing.

Fifth, and finally, the death penalty itself, which is already covered ad nauseum.

If I'm on the original jury, I am probably leaning towards guilt anyway, including the death penalty. The confession testimony only made it easier...

Unless of course you have other info not presented above...


tsj said...

Welcome. I'm not withholding any facts or evidence. I'm withholding (for now) only my thoughts and opinions.

Anonymous said...

I don't have any doubt he killed the baby. I also believe Johnson's story about hating his wife, and that he mistreated his baby because he hated her. But there seems to be some reasonable doubt that e.g. when he lay on the baby, he actually intended to kill him. Likewise with the beating and so on.

Still, I wonder if it might be cruel and unusual punishment to sentence him to life in prison after he asked for the death penalty.

Anonymous said...

I am mostly drawn to assume mental health issues. He refuses an attorney, begs for the death penalty, denies he was sexually abused, bangs his head on the cell wall, withholds psychological report (???? it looks like it). He wants to die. I am sceptical (excuse British spelling) mainly because I would have imagined a court would have intervened where a defendant clearly was suffering such issues and insist he did not represent himself. I don't know how the law stands on that matter, but I would've thought that wouldn't be good practice.

There's also the contradiction in the statements: "l]ast night was the hardest that [he] ever hit [Elias and he was] pretty sure [Elias's death was his] fault." and "Johnson also stated that after the event that night, he did not think that he had seriously injured Elias." Did he intentionally kill him? I know parents lose it, it's a terrible and horrible fact and the resulting injuries are painful and awful to consider. Babies are needy & noisy and if you're a bit unhinged and turn to violence easily, you possibly aren't going to cope and might get violent and injure your child. This could be an extreme case of that tendency rather than an intentional attack.

I would suggest he feels so guilty for losing the plot and attacking his baby he wants to die. Whether that should be a role of the state to relieve him of his misery is a question I can't answer, but if there were no death penalty, it wouldn't even be a question.

An English Observer

Mols said...

I tend to agree with our English Observer. Sounds very much to me like Mister Johnson is unstable & wants to die.

... Pack said she was not satisfied. "Since it can be proved that he lied about (the sexual abuse), I think he lied throughout the whole trial," ...

(BTW - That's an Alabamian for you - proved versus proven.) Don't judge me. I'm from the South; I can crack on them & not feel bad! :)

On another (unrelated to this post note) I'm going to take you up on your offer, TSJ... Have been doing a bit of research in the case of Missouri versus Reginald Clemons in my spare time (what little of it there is; just moved, work has been hell, etc...) So it may take me a bit to get my case points together, but I've started. :)

tsj said...

I peeked at Mo v. Clemmons. Holy cow!

Mols said...

I know, right? One of the four convicted has already been executed, another's sentence commuted to life in prison & the last released in 2007. This one's FULL of conundrums.

Anonymous said...

I’d say his guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

In thinking about the punishment phase of the trial, I don’t know that I could vote (disclosure - I oppose capital punishment in principle) to sentencing him to death based on questions about his sanity, his intent, the fact he was intoxicated at the time; and lastly, in the fact that the result would be more like an assisted suicide than the completion of a criminal sentence.

Carolyn Gregory said...

This is a case of state-sanctioned suicide. This self confessed murderer wanted to hurt his wife and to die and he is getting his wish. Since I am a medical professional, my feeling is that it would make an awful lot more sense to study his psychopathology while he is incarcerated to find out what could possibly have produced such an amoral and disturbed individual? But it's clear that once again, yet another American southern state will kill their man tonight. Abolish the Death Penalty in America now. The case of state-sanctioned murder of Troy Davis in Georgia in September, 2011 should SEAL the fate of the Death Penalty in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Johnson is patently insane. Leaving aside the usual arguments for and against the death penalty, Alabama has no business executing him even under current law.

Where is AI on this case? Where are the people in the entertainment business and the protesters in t-shirts? Johnson deserves intervention on his behalf *at least* as much as Troy Davis did.

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