Nearly 29-year-old slaying appears headed for trial in Houston County

bpurser@macon.comSeptember 3, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Nearly 29 years have passed since a 24-year-old convenience store clerk and mother of three was shot and later died after a September 1984 botched armed robbery. Her family wants justice.

“This is something that will never go away,” said Deborah Pratt, sister of Taressa Stanley, who was slain while working at a Kwickie convenience store at the corner of Wellborn Road and Wall Street.

For about 7 1/2 of those 29 years, Timothy Johnson has been sitting in the Houston County jail after his 1984 murder conviction in Stanley’s killing was vacated by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2006. Maintaining his innocence, Johnson seeks his freedom.

“Both families have been put through hell,” said Stacey F. Morris, one of Johnson’s attorneys. “That victim’s father comes to court every time, and nothing happens.

“Everybody deserves to have justice, whatever that is. ... But this isn’t justice -- him sitting there in jail for eight years.”

Johnson, now 51, pleaded guilty to murder and armed robbery in Houston County Superior Court on Dec. 11, 1984. It was part of a deal in which prosecutors agreed not to seek a death sentence.

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. A notice to seek the death penalty was filed the same month but has since been withdrawn.

Johnson has been held in the Houston County jail since March 2006, having been transferred there from prison on a hold for Superior Court to face trial in the slaying.

Morris and her husband, Ricky W. Morris, are McDonough attorneys representing Johnson free of charge. They sought to have the new case against Johnson dismissed, arguing his constitutional rights to a speedy trial have been violated. A new appeal was made to the Georgia Supreme Court.

But in February, the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case -- noting a procedural error. Defense attorneys then asked Superior Court Judge George Nunn to dismiss the case on the same grounds. In August, Nunn agreed with the state Supreme Court.

Both the defense and prosecution say the next step is to take the decades-old case before a Houston County jury for trial.

Houston County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Daniel P. Bibler, who inherited prosecution of the case, said dates have not yet been set for pre-trial motions and then trial. He expects it’s a matter of working out the schedules of attorneys and the judge.

Both sides say they’re ready to go trial but acknowledge the case will be difficult because evidence is missing, and some witnesses have died.

“It’s going to be very hard for either side to have a fair trial at this point,” Stacey Morris said.

Pratt said she and her father, George McGrew, have been to every court hearing since 1984. Both were there when Johnson admitted to killing Stanley when he pleaded guilty 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.

“I have to be there to know that he don’t get turned loose,” Pratt said as she fought back tears.

Her son 30-year-Richard Pratt was not yet 2 years old when Stanley was killed. He has witnessed the pain and agony his family experienced through the years. He said he’s seen his mother burst into tears at the mention of her sister’s name.

“I’m ready to get it over with,” he said.

Johnson also has experienced anguish, languishing in prison for a crime he’s adamant he did not commit and then remaining in jail after his conviction was vacated. Morris previously noted that when Johnson made the 1984 plea agreement, he was facing death, and he feared family members would face prosecution.

“We are ready for trial,” Stacey Morris said. “Everybody has waited too long.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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