After nearly 28 years in prison, Warner Robins man continues to fight for his freedom

bpurser@macon.comSeptember 20, 2012 

PERRY -- A Warner Robins man whose 28-year-old murder conviction was overturned in 2006 only for him to face a new trial for the slaying continues to fight for his freedom.

Timothy Johnson, at age 22, pleaded guilty Dec. 11, 1984, to the murder of Warner Robins convenience store clerk Taressa Stanley during a botched armed robbery. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Feb. 13, 2006, that Johnson didn’t understand his right not to incriminate himself and to question witnesses when he entered his guilty plea.

With the crime of murder having no statute of limitations, Johnson was reindicted June 6, 2006, by a Houston County grand jury, and a notice to seek the death penalty was filed the same month by then-District Attorney Kelly Burke. That notice has since been withdrawn.

On Thursday, the 50-year-old Johnson, his hands shackled and wearing a gray-and-white striped jail jumpsuit, was before Judge George F. Nunn seeking bond. It was denied.

Stacey F. Morris and Ricky W. Morris, McDonough attorneys who are representing Johnson, have sought to have the new case against Johnson dismissed, arguing his constitutional rights to a speedy trial have been violated. Johnson has been held in the Houston County jail since March 2006, having been transferred there from prison on a hold for Superior Court.

Nunn previously denied the motion, noting in part the overall uniqueness and uncommon nature of the case. Nunn ruled the matter should be heard on its own merits, and Johnson should stand trial.

A notice of intent to appeal Nunn’s ruling before the Georgia Supreme Court has been filed by Johnson’s attorneys.

“It’s not a discretionary appeal,” Stacey Morris said Thursday. “They have to hear it.”

Once the case file and its transcripts are transmitted to the Supreme Court, Johnson’s attorneys are expected to file an appeal brief, followed by a response by Houston County prosecutors, and then oral arguments before the justices are expected to be scheduled, Morris said.

Johnson, who represented himself from his Reidsville State Prison cell, overcame incredible odds in winning his handwritten appeal to the state’s highest court. Less than 1 percent of murder convictions are overturned by the court.

Johnson’s attorneys are representing him free of charge. Stacey Morris was among attorneys representing Johnson for the Georgia Capital Defender Office after his re-indictment before she went into private practice. Johnson wrote her a letter asking for help, she said.

Bond denied

At the bond hearing, Johnson appeared calm and composed.

But Nunn denied bond on the grounds that he believes Johnson poses a threat to the community.

Morris argued Johnson’s due process rights to a speedy trial have been violated and that he has been in prison for nearly 28 years and jailed in Houston County for nearly seven years awaiting trial on the 2006 indictment.

She said the delay is in fact “death by due process” for Johnson who has been “rotting in jail.”

Morris told the judge Johnson is not a flight risk and would stay with his mother. She noted Johnson has rejected a plea offer from the prosecutor.

“He’s absolutely adamant he’s innocent,” Morris said.

Morris argued “almost every piece of evidence” in the case is no longer in existence. No gun, no bullets, no fingerprints, she said.

She noted the lead investigator has since died, one of the witnesses is incompetent and two other witnesses, Johnson’s mother and stepfather, are expected to invoke their constitutional right to remain silent. Although the charges of accessory to murder in the clerk’s death against both were dismissed after Johnson pled, there is no statute of limitations, and, thus, his mother and stepfather cannot be compelled to testify, Morris argued.

Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Daniel P. Bibler argued against bond, noting the serious nature of the charges against Johnson. Johnson was reindicted on murder and armed robbery charges in relation to the clerk’s killing on Sept. 14, 1984. He was also reindicted on a charge of armed robbery of the same convenience store on July 26, 1984. Bibler did not address Morris’ other arguments before the court.

Stanley, 24, a wife and mother of three, was shot in the neck in the armed robbery while working at a convenience store at the corner of Wellborn Road and Wall Street at 8:40 p.m. Sept. 14, 1984. She died a few days later in the hospital.

Johnson admitted to killing Stanley when he pleaded guilty in 1984 and agreed not to seek early release or to appeal. The deal called for the death penalty to come off the table and for Johnson to be sentenced to consecutive life sentences.

But Morris noted outside of the courtroom that when Johnson made that plea agreement, he was facing death and his mother, stepfather and girlfriend had all been arrested.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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