Man accused in 29-year-old slaying faces trial in Houston County

bpurser@macon.comNovember 30, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Timothy Johnson pleaded guilty in December 1984 to shooting a Warner Robins convenience store clerk to death during a botched armed robbery.

The Georgia Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2006, but the 51-year-old Johnson of Warner Robins 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.

Monday in Houston County Superior Court, jury selection is expected in his long-awaited trial. Opening statements are expected either Monday afternoon or early Tuesday morning with Judge George Nunn presiding.

Johnson is accused of shooting Stanley during a robbery of the Kwickie convenience store at the corner of Wellborn Road and Wall Street in September 1984. She was shot in the neck and died three days later at Houston Medical Center.

Destroyed evidence

Stacey Flynn Morris, Johnson’s attorney, said that much of the evidence has been destroyed, including the gun, bullet and clothing. Yet, she said, the prosecution will be allowed to present related evidence to jurors.

For example, the prosecution is expected to introduce the 1984 ballistic report, but the defense cannot have its expert examine the gun or bullet to see if the report is accurate.

“We don’t have any ability to test that bullet and test that gun independently ourselves to see that everything was done properly. We cannot do that because it doesn’t exist for us to test,” she said. “How is that fair?”

Many of the witnesses have died, such as the lead Warner Robins detective and the medical examiner, and other witnesses cannot be located 29 years later for trial.

“Mr. Johnson’s rights to confront this witness against him are gone, just completely violated,” Morris said. “I guess the bottom line is just that so many witnesses have passed away that there’s no way on earth that Mr. Johnson will ever get a fair trial at this point, and the district attorney’s office knows that.”

District Attorney George Hartwig said his goal is to give Johnson a fair trial.

“The only thing I can say is ethically we are prohibited from commenting on the evidence and the witnesses before trial,” Hartwig said. “Any problem or issues (Morris) has should be directed to the jury during closing argument.”

Possible witnesses

Among those on the prosecution’s witness list is Tillman “Bo” Densley, Johnson’s stepfather. He testified in a 1984 deposition that he found a gun that had fallen out of a garbage bag that he later disposed of in some bushes.

Also on the list is Mac Derrick, a retired police detective. He testified at a court hearing in 1984 that Johnson’s stepfather took police to the .22-caliber handgun hidden in bushes behind a shopping plaza. Derrick testified that a “projectile” matching the gun was found lodged under a shelf in the convenience store.

He also testified that a palm print matching Johnson’s was lifted from a 12-pack of Budweiser found discarded where Johnson allegedly stumbled along a wooded path south of the store as he was running away.

Also on the list of potential prosecution witnesses are April Gerbert, who was 2 years old when her mother was killed and could tell jurors what it’s been like to grow up without her mother, and Deborah Pratt, Stanley’s sister, who can testify how she knew Johnson and what she heard and saw in the courtroom in 1984.

Among several witnesses whose whereabouts is unknown is Shirley Brown, Johnson’s girlfriend at the time of his arrest. Brown said in her 1984 deposition that she and Johnson’s mother packed into a garbage bag the stolen cash and rolled up coins he had allegedly stashed under a mattress at the home Brown and Johnson shared.

The women also packed up his clothes.

Missing from the prosecution’s witness list is Johnson’s mother, Gladys Densley, who stated in her 1984 deposition, “(Johnson) went in there to rob the lady, but he didn’t go in there to kill the lady. He said he had a 12-pack of beer under his arm and when he went to turn to take the money ... the gun went off.”

Among the former witnesses who have died is Mark Davis, who was identified in the court record as a police informant. He testified in a 1984 deposition that he had driven Johnson by the convenience store a week or so before the robbery and that Johnson had told him he was going to rob it.

Morris objects to police referring to Davis as an informant.

“This is the man who was at the scene when the police got there,” Morris said of Davis. “He was right there. He had a very long extended criminal history, and he was right there at the scene when police came and he gave them his name and he said, ‘I know who did this,’ and then started the whole chain rolling.”

Among the defense witnesses are retired Butts County Sheriff Gene Pope, who is now a security and investigations consultant; Kelly Fite, a former GBI ballistics trainer; and Donald Girndt, a forensic consultant who’s expected to testify about proper print collection and storage.

Also on the list are three former Houston County prosecutors -- Kelly Burke, Jason Ashford and Rabb Wilkerson. Burke took Johnson’s case before the grand jury in 2006 after his guilty plea was overturned, and Ashford and Wilkerson both served at the helm of the DA’s office.

In addition, the defense expects to call Bentley Adams, a former Georgia Capital Defenders attorney who represented Johnson when the death penalty was sought against him in the original 2006 indictment. Burke sought the death penalty, which was withdrawn under Hartwig’s administration.

Morris argued that the DA’s office bungled Johnson’s case from the start. She said the original plea was overturned and that the case has not moved forward for trial until now.

She also claims Johnson was abandoned by prior attorneys.

Johnson’s original conviction was overturned when he was representing himself. In his handwritten appeals from his prison cell, Johnson denied he killed Stanley, claimed he had an alibi, said his attorney botched the job and said he was coerced into the guilty plea. In its 2006 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court found no record that Johnson had been advised of his right to confront witnesses and to not incriminate himself. Johnson was transferred in 2006 to the Houston County jail for trial on the re-indictment.

Nothing related to the history of the case may be heard by jurors during this trial.

“There will be no mention whatsoever,” Morris said. “Mr. Johnson is innocent at this point until proven guilty.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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