Witness: Warner Robins man said he was sorry for killing her sister

bpurser@macon.comDecember 3, 2013 

PERRY -- Deborah Pratt told jurors Tuesday the Warner Robins man accused of slaying her sister apologized in 1984 for the shooting.

Timothy Johnson is on trial in Houston County Superior Court on charges of malice murder, felony murder and armed robbery in the Sept. 14, 1984, shooting of 24-year-old convenience store clerk Taressa Stanley. The wife and mother of three later died at Houston Medical Center.

Johnson pleaded guilty to the slaying in 1984 at age 22. The state Supreme Court set aside the conviction in 2006, and he was quickly reindicted the same year. Jurors may not hear any information related to the history of the case.

“I’m sorry, Debbie,” Pratt recalled Johnson telling her 29 years ago during a court hearing. “I didn’t know it was your sister. I wouldn’t have shot her.”

Pratt was pressed by Stacey Flynn Morris, Johnson’s attorney, about the alleged comment, noting that Johnson was in custody, handcuffed and being escorted by deputies whom she said would not allow a defendant to talk with the victim’s family. Morris wanted to know why Pratt didn’t tell anyone about the alleged remark and why no record was made of it until fairly recently.

Pratt responded in part there “was no need to.” But her testimony was quickly halted when prosecutor Daniel P. Bibler asked to approach the judge. Jurors were then excused from the room, and Judge George Nunn instructed Pratt that she may not make any references in front of jurors about why Johnson was in the courtroom that day.

What jurors did not hear was that Johnson allegedly made the remark to Pratt after he pleaded guilty to the slaying, was sentenced to life and agreed not to seek early release or appeal. The plea was part of a deal with the prosecution for the death penalty to come off the table.

What jurors heard was that Pratt said she told former District Attorney Kelly Burke about the remark, and later Bibler and a Telegraph reporter. Burke was the prosecutor who successfully pursued Johnson’s re-indictment by a grand jury.

Morris also questioned Pratt about other testimony involving Johnson, who had been a regular customer at a convenience store where she worked. She told jurors Johnson regularly borrowed small change to complete purchases that he would always pay back by the end of the work week. Several hours before Pratt’s sister was killed at another convenience store, Johnson arrived at Pratt’s store to pay the $2.65 he owed her but gave her $3 and told her to keep the change. Morris said the amounts quoted in an earlier Telegraph report were $3.65 and $5.

Pratt said she may have gotten it wrong, or the reporter may have gotten it wrong, though she thinks she got it right. But what she remembers is that Johnson overpaid the debt by 35 cents -- something he had not done before then.

Pratt also told jurors she saw and spoke to Johnson at the convenience store where her sister was working that night when she went to check on her. Pratt later got a phone call to come to the store after her sister was shot. It was not clear from her testimony how much time passed between Pratt allegedly having seen Johnson at the store and when she received the call about her sister.

Dr. Douglas Posey, a forensic pathologist, testified that Stanley died as a result of being shot in the neck. Outside of the jury’s presence, Morris objected to his testimony because he was not present at the autopsy and had not examined Stanley’s body but was basing his opinion solely on the report of the medical examiner.

Because the medical examiner is dead, Morris argued Johnson’s state and U.S. constitutional rights to confront witnesses against him were being violated, among other objections. Also, the report itself was not admissible, she noted.

But Nunn ruled Posey may look at the findings of the report and reach his own conclusions.

Harry Dennard, who was a Warner Robins police patrol commander in 1984, testified about finding the bullet in the convenience store at Wellborn Road and Wall Street. Galen Noll, who was over forensics for the police department at the time, testified about the path behind the store where some change, beer and a cardboard beer carton were found after the robbery.

Mike Overby, a city patrol officer in 1984, told jurors about holding the wounded clerk and thinking she died in his arms. He also testified that a test conducted on Johnson found no gun residue on his hands. Overby acknowledged under questioning by Morris he was forced to retire from the Butts County Sheriff’s Office, where he later worked, while under investigation.

During opening statements earlier Tuesday, prosecutor Clif Woody told jurors that Johnson took what was most precious to Stanley, her life. He focused on what he said the evidence would show during the trial. Morris argued that what the prosecutor says isn’t evidence. She asked jurors to really look at and listen to what’s presented during the trial.

Morris also tore up the indictment before jurors, arguing the charges are only allegations.

“He sits there right now as innocent,” Morris said as she pointed to Johnson.

Several family members of the victim -- including her father, brother, children and Jeff Stanley, who was her husband in 1984 -- sat behind the prosecution. Johnson’s sister sat behind him.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service