Jurors in Timothy Johnson trial won’t hear evidence of earlier armed robbery

bpurser@macon.comNovember 10, 2013 


Timothy Johnson speaks with his lead attorney Stacey F. Morris before a motions hearing Oct. 17 in Perry. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned Johnson's conviction in 2006, but the 51-year-old was quickly reindicted by a Houston County grand jury for the slaying of 24-year-old Taressa Stanley, a wife and mother of three young children. Jury selection is expected Monday in his retrial.

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PERRY -- A Houston County judge has ruled that the prosecution cannot introduce evidence allegedly linking Timothy Johnson to a July 1984 robbery at the same convenience store where he is accused of killing a clerk less than two months later.

Superior Court Judge George Nunn also dismissed aggravated battery charges against Johnson, saying the statute of limitations on filing such charges had expired, and denied a third defense motion to dismiss the entire indictment based on a claim that Johnson’s right to a speedy trial was violated.

Johnson, 51, 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. Stanley was shot in the neck and died two days later at Houston Medical Center.

Johnson had been serving a life sentence for the slaying that he pleaded guilty to in 1984. He also pleaded guilty to both armed robberies in an agreement with the prosecution that took the death penalty off the table. His conviction was overturned in 2006 by the state Supreme Court. The court found that Johnson didn’t understand his right not to incriminate himself and to question witnesses when he entered his plea. He was reindicted by a Houston County grand jury in 2006.

The case is now headed for trial Dec. 2.

The rulings

The three rulings came in response to defense motions argued at a pretrial hearing last month. At the hearing, Stacey Flynn Morris, Johnson’s lead attorney, sought to throw out any alleged evidence related to the July 26, 1984, armed robbery in which a female clerk was robbed at knifepoint but was unharmed. Morris 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 Bow-ser Jones sat beside Melody Bryan, the store clerk who was 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 next to Jones on the day 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 his written ruling, Nunn sided with the defense.

“The two witnesses (in the July robbery) were present, apparently as trial witnesses, in the courtroom along with one of the police investigators. Although the exact conversation between the investigator and the witnesses cannot be recalled precisely, the circumstances and location of the parties at the time raise some concerns as to the validity of the identification,” Nunn wrote.

Moreover, Nunn found that the two armed robberies were “simply not unique to one individual.” He noted that in the first, the robber used a knife and did not harm the clerk. But in the second, the robber used a gun and the clerk was killed.

“We’re thrilled with the ruling,” Morris said. “It was the absolutely the right ruling for the judge to make when he had a look at the law and the facts of the case.

“It was very clear to us ... that Johnson did not commit that armed robbery,” she said.

Morris noted that the composite sketch of the suspect did not match Johnson and that there was no evidence that tied Johnson to the crime other than the tainted identification.

The prosecution took the ruling in stride.

“We’re moving forward without it,” said Daniel P. Bibler, deputy chief assistant district attorney. “It doesn’t change the theory of our case.”

He declined to elaborate.

The other findings

The 2006 six-count indictment charged Johnson with one count of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, one count of armed robbery and two counts of aggravated battery.

In dismissing the aggravated battery charges, Nunn said that Johnson was never indicted for aggravated battery in 1984.

“The 2006 indictment was the first time that (Johnson) had been put on notice that he would have to defend himself against claims of aggravated battery, nearly 22 years after the alleged commission of said battery,” Nunn wrote.

But the statute of limitations on aggravated battery requires an indictment within four years of the alleged crime, Nunn said.

In his third ruling, Nunn found that Johnson did not strictly comply with the procedural requirements of the law to invoke the speedy trial provision. Morris took Johnson’s case in early 2011 after it was handled by other attorneys. She claimed at the hearing Johnson was essentially abandoned by his attorneys.

“That’s the judge’s ruling,” Morris said. “We live by that ruling and it means we’re going to trial and ... We’ve been ready to go to trial since the day I took the case.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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