PERRY -- Fifty-one-year-old Timothy Johnson walked out of the Houston County Courthouse on Thursday a free man after spending the past 29 years behind bars.
A jury acquitted him of the 1984 armed robbery and slaying of 24-year-old Taressa Stanley, who was shot in the neck at the Kwickie convenience store where she worked at Wellborn Road and Wall Street. It was a crime to which Johnson previously pleaded guilty.
He admitted to the killing in December 1984 in a plea deal for the death penalty to come off the table. But the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2006 on the grounds there was nothing in the record to indicate Johnson understood his rights not to incriminate himself and to confront witnesses against him. He was reindicted in 2006.
The age of the case complicated things. Much of the evidence was destroyed. Many of the witnesses had died, and others could not be located for trial.
Jurors, who were not allowed to hear anything related to the history of the case, deliberated for a little over an hour before rendering the acquittal. They were ushered out a back entrance of the courtroom after the verdict was read.
Johnson immediately hugged his attorney, Stacey Flynn Morris. His family members hugged each other and shed tears as Stanleys family members hung their heads and comforted one another.
Suddenly, as Judge George Nunn was saying the two families should leave the courthouse separately, there was an outburst from a visibly angry and upset Jeff Stanley. He was married to Taressa Stanley.
Im leaving, Stanley said as he stood up. His daughters pleaded for him to sit back down. Courthouse security immediately rushed the judge out a back door, while deputies converged on Stanley. He was allowed to walk out on his own and shouted an obscenity in reference to the court system as he left. The rest of Taressa Stanleys family also left the courtroom.
The focus shifted back to Johnson, who hugged family members as they lined up to greet him. Tears were shed and words whispered with each hug.
Morris, who believed in Johnson and represented him free of charge, stood back and snapped photographs with her cell phone.
She said she wanted this to be Johnsons moment.
He doesnt care about his stuff, Morris told deputies as they were about to walk him through the tunnel that leads to the jail across the courtyard. Hes a free man. He wants to walk out a free man.
Cpl. Tommy Spires, head of security, agreed. Johnson was given a deputy escort out of the courtroom in light of the earlier outburst. He also had to fill out final paperwork.
As he walked out of the second floor courtroom, Johnson credited his release to the grace of God. He said he planned to spend time with family. He stepped outside and walked across the courtyard to the jail. He tilted his head up into a light drizzle of rain and smiled.
I was thinking more or less that God had brought me this far, and I didnt think that he brought me this far to send me back to prison, Johnson said.
When Johnson walked into the lobby of the jail, he asked if this was where his family waited to visit him. He had been at the Houston County jail since 2006 when he was moved from the Reidsville prison. He seemed almost dazed to be on the other side.
Deputy Tony Santiago wished Johnson good luck as he disappeared behind guarded walls to retrieve his belongings.
His family remained in the lobby, still rejoicing.
My heart is overwhelmed for him, said his uncle, Willie Wilson. Im just elated.
Johnsons sister, Sharon Smith, a schoolteacher, said, Destiny has revealed itself, and I just pray that the Stanley family is able to move forward with their life and find closure in this.
Several minutes later, Johnson emerged with his belongings on a cart, including numerous folders holding all of his appeals and other legal documents.
It was time to go home.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.