WARNER ROBINS -- In 1984, Deborah Pratt sat in a Houston County courtroom and watched Timothy Johnson plead guilty to the slaying of her sister. Thursday, she was in a similar courtroom when a jury acquitted the 51-year-old Johnson of the slaying and armed robbery 29 years later.
Johnson professed his innocence.
But in December 1984, Johnson pleaded guilty to shooting 24-year-old Taressa Stanley once in the neck during a robbery two months earlier of the Kwickie convenience store at Wellborn Road and Wall Street in Warner Robins. He was 22. The plea was part of a deal for the death penalty not to be considered.
In 2006, the Georgia Supreme Court set aside the conviction on the grounds that there was nothing in the court record to indicate that Johnson understood his rights to confront witnesses and to not incriminate himself. He won the appeal while representing himself from his Reidsville prison cell.
But a Houston County grand jury reindicted Johnson in 2006, and he went to trial for the slaying last week. Jurors deliberated a little more than an hour before acquitting him. Jurors were not allowed to hear anything related to the history of the case.
Complicating the trial was the age of the case. Witnesses had died or could not be located, and evidence had been destroyed, including a gun and a bullet.
It was like a big joke, said Pratt, a retired school bus driver. I mean there was so much withheld from that jury. I dont know how they could have found him guilty with what was withheld from them.
Pratt said she thought that prosecutors did the best they could do with the testimony and evidence they were allowed to present to jurors.
The age of the case was not only taxing on the prosecution but the defense as well. The defense was not able to introduce affidavits of alibi witnesses to be reviewed by jurors because those witnesses could not be located to testify, for example.
Jurors also did not know that in his voluminous appeals, Johnson denied he killed Stanley, claimed he had an alibi, said his attorney in 1984 botched the job and said that he was coerced into the guilty plea.
Stacey Flynn Morris, who was not his attorney back then but represented him at trial, noted, Theres a huge difference between someone entering a guilty plea to avoid the death penalty ... someone entering the plea under coercion, under duress, under fear and someone who actually confessed to a killing.
Although the case was difficult because of the passage of time and unavailability of witnesses and physical evidence, lead prosecutor Daniel P. Bibler said he thinks there was sufficient evidence available for a jury to consider.
They did so, and I fully respect their verdict and the job they did, Bibler stated in an email.
Pratt was called as a prosecution witness. She told jurors that she saw Johnson in the convenience store earlier on the same day of the slaying and that Johnson had apologized to her in 1984 during a court hearing -- the same court hearing in which Johnson entered the guilty plea.
During the trial, Pratt was pressed by Morris about Johnsons 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 victims family. Morris wanted to know why no record was made of it until fairly recently.
Morris also described Pratt to jurors as a woman hurting because of the slaying of her sister, and she asked jurors if it was reasonable to believe that Johnson allegedly would have gone ahead with a robbery when hed just been identified by name by the clerks sister?
Pratt stood by her testimony.
Several members of Stanleys family came to Perry for the trial, including her father, brother, her husband in 1984, and her adult daughters, who were the ages of 5, 3 and 2 when she died.
Pratt said she finds it more palatable to think of Johnson in terms that he spent 29 years behind bars than he was found not guilty by jurors.
We have no choice but to go on, Pratt said. I mean, Im sorry but the way I feel is, my nieces, my brother-in-law, are lucky, they dont live here and dont have a chance of crossing paths.
Nonetheless, Pratt said she expects she and the entire family will be able to move forward.
Weve made it 29 years and well continue to make it, she said.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.