PERRY -- On the eve of his scheduled Houston County murder trial, a Byron man pleaded guilty Friday to the 1995 slaying of a Warner Robins woman and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Ronald Free, 45, was scheduled to go on trial next week in Houston County Superior Court on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary and possession of a knife during a crime. Jury selection was expected Monday.
But Friday afternoon, Free entered a guilty plea to felony murder and burglary in connection with the stabbing death of Carol Johnson, 34, inside her North Avenue home on Dec. 23, 1995. The other charges were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
Free likely will serve 14 years before he is eligible for parole based on sentencing guidelines that were in effect at the time of the slaying, said Jeff Grube, a Warner Robins attorney representing Free. Free, who has been held in the Houston County jail for the past several years awaiting trial, will receive credit for time served.
The cold case had been unsolved until 2007 when DNA from a blood sample taken from Free when imprisoned in 2000 for stealing a vehicle was matched to his blood found at the murder scene from where he broke in through a bedroom window. The match was made through the Combined Defender DNA Indexing System maintained by the GBI Crime Lab.
Free was working for an air conditioning company, according to his attorney, when arrested by Warner Robins police Nov. 16, 2007. Frees arrest came nearly 12 years after Johnsons slaying and his guilty plea 16 years after her death.
Johnson was found lying face down in the master bedroom of her home after being stabbed multiple times receiving deep wounds to her chest and hip, District Attorney George Hartwig said. A blood trail from the living room to the bathroom to the bedroom indicated she was likely fleeing her attacker, Hartwig said.
Shackled and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, Free told presiding Judge George F. Nunn, I really want to express my sorrow for Ms. Johnson.
Free also told the judge he hopes that Johnson is in heaven and said that hes no monster.
Harold Johnson, who was married to Carol Johnson at the time of her death, was not content with the outcome of the plea agreement, victims advocate Felicia Richardson told the judge on behalf of the family. Harold Johnson felt that Free should not receive credit for time served, Richardson said.
Richardson told the judge that family members had planned to attend the hearing but were caught up in traffic and did not want to delay the court proceedings.
Hartwig told the judge he believed the prosecution would have prevailed had Free gone to trial based on additional evidence of Frees fingerprints in blood on the bathroom door. However, Hartwig added that the door and the fingerprints were destroyed and not kept as evidence.
Hartwig also said Free had admitted to police that he had broken into the home, although he had never admitted to the slaying during the police interview.
Grube told the judge that the felony murder plea was a best interest plea. Felony murder is when someone dies in the commission of a felony crime, which in this case was burglary.
Free could have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole had the case gone to trial and he had been found guilty. The negotiated sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole was part of the reason Free entered the plea, Grube told the judge.
About a month after Johnsons slaying, 26-year-old Scott Berry was shot in the stomach while standing in the doorway of the same North Avenue home Jan. 30, 1996. He died the next day. Berrys homicide remains unsolved.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.