Judge weighs pretrial motions in 1984 Warner Robins slaying

bpurser@macon.comOctober 17, 2013 

PERRY -- Whether the prosecution may introduce evidence allegedly linking Timothy Johnson to the 1984 robbery of the same convenience store where he is accused of killing a clerk less than two months later remains to be seen.

Superior Court Judge George Nunn took the matter under advisement Thursday during a pretrial motions hearing for the 51-year-old Johnson.

Johnson is accused of slaying 24-year-old Taressa Stanley in a botched armed robbery Sept. 14, 1984, at a Kwickie convenience store at the corner of Wellborn Road and Wall Street in Warner Robins. Stanley, who was shot in the neck, died two days later at Houston Medical Center.

The crime and case history

In December 1984, Johnson pleaded guilty to the killing and armed robbery as well as the July 26, 1984, armed robbery of the same convenience store in which a different female clerk was threatened at knife point. The guilty plea was part of a deal in which prosecutors agreed not to seek a death sentence. Johnson was 22.

But in February 2006, the Georgia Supreme Court set aside the conviction. The court found that Johnson didn’t understand his right not to incriminate himself and to question witnesses when he entered his plea. The decision followed years of handwritten appeals by Johnson from prison.

Former Houston County District Attorney Kelly Burke successfully fought to prevent Johnson from being released from custody in order to take the case before a new Houston County grand jury. Johnson was reindicted in June 2006. The crime of murder has no statute of limitations. A notice to seek the death penalty was also filed but withdrawn in 2012. Other appeals were filed. Now, the case has been set for a jury trial Dec. 2 before Nunn.

A key defense issue

On Thursday, Stacey Flynn Morris, Johnson’s lead attorney from McDonough, asked that jurors not be allowed to hear anything related to the July 1984 armed robbery. She alleged that the Warner Robins police officer who first responded to both armed robberies improperly influenced two key prosecution witnesses in 1984.

Morris argued that Dawn Bowser Jones, who is no longer a Warner Robins police officer, sat beside Melody Bryan, who was the store clerk robbed in July 1984, and Shawn Palatino, another witness, and coached them on court proceedings.

Neither Bryan nor Palatino, who lived near the convenience store, were able to pick out Johnson from a police lineup, Morris said. But after both witnesses sat beside Jones on the day that Johnson was set for trial, both identified Johnson, Morris said. The trial was averted by Johnson’s plea.

Also, Bryan and Palatino’s identification of Johnson that day was prejudicial and improper because Johnson was brought into the courtroom shackled and wearing a jail jumpsuit, Morris said.

In addition, a composite sketch that was made of a man who knocked on the door of Palatino’s home shortly after the September 1984 armed robbery did not resemble Johnson and was never introduced into evidence in 1984, Morris said. She brought the composite sketch to court and introduced it as evidence Thursday.

“It looks nothing like Mr. Johnson,” Morris told the judge.

The state’s response

Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Daniel P. Bibler, who is prosecuting the case, told the judge he disagreed with Morris’ summation but argued a jury could consider those arguments during trial.

Bibler argued that the key issue before the judge is whether or not the July 1984 armed robbery meets the legal threshold to be allowed into evidence by establishing a motive and plan.

Nunn said he wanted to review previous court transcripts on the matter before rendering a decision.

If the July 1984 robbery is found to be admissible, the next hurdle for the prosecution and defense will be how to question Jones, who is in Miami awaiting a liver transplant. Attorneys discussed varied options including traveling to Miami to take a deposition to be introduced in court or to conduct a video deposition in which the attorneys and the judge are in Middle Georgia and Jones remains in Miami.

Another motion argued Thursday was whether evidence that has been destroyed or has been lost, such as the gun and the bullet, should be admissible at the new trial. The judge also took that motion under advisement.

“Our hands our tied,” Morris said afterward. “The state’s hands are probably tied as well, but Mr. Johnson is the one who is on trial for his life. He has a constitutional right to have all of the evidence brought in against him, and the state has destroyed or lost the gun, the bullet, any of the clothing that was worn by either the victim, Mr. Johnson or any other alleged or potential other suspect.

“So there’s nothing. ... There’s no evidence left at all, essentially, for us to test, or to look at or to present to a jury,” she said.

Johnson’s parents attended portions of Thursday’s hearing, as did Stanley’s sister, Deborah Pratt, and their father, George McGrew.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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