What is Christopher Johnson’s trial defense?

December 3, 2014

So far, the defense attorneys representing Christopher Matthew Johnson, the Owensboro man charged with shooting his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend on Nov. 8, 2013, have not presented much of a case.

That’s not because they lack competence. Public Defenders Leigh Jackson and Matthew Meier are experienced attorneys who have been handling criminal defense cases in Daviess County for years. Rather than being outclassed in skills, Jackson and Meier are fighting an uphill battle against the case evidence.

Johnson, 27, is facing two counts of first-degree assault, for allegedly shooting Andrea Ward and Aaron Knott at Ward’s Whitesville home. With the trial going into its third day, the prosecution has dominated so far; Jackson and Meier have limited themselves to asking a few questions about evidence and making several evidence-related objections. Cross-examination of witnesses has been minimal, at least compared to other criminal trials I’ve covered over the past five years.

So what are Jackson and Meier planning for Johnson’s defense? Jackson hinted at a possible strategy during her opening arguments.

In her statement to jurors, Jackson acknowledged that Johnson was inside Ward’s home the evening of Nov. 8. Johnson, she said, went to the home to attempted to reconcile with Ward, with whom he’d had an “on again, off again” relationship.

Johnson and Ward had lived together until late August or early September 2013, along with Ward’s toddler son. Inside the home on Nov. 8, Johnson saw several items that belonged to a man — shampoo, clothing — that were not his, Jackson told jurors. At that point, Ward and boyfriend Aaron Knott entered the home; Johnson heard Ward talking to Knott and “his world fell apart,” Jackson said.

“He had lost his family,” Jackson said, referring to Ward and her son. Instead of asking jurors to find Johnson not guilty, Jackson said, at the end of the case, the defense would ask the jury “to make certain findings on behalf of Mr. Johnson.”

Jackson appears to be setting up to argue that Johnson suffered from “extreme emotional disturbance” at the time of the incident. Extreme emotional disturbance is part of the state’s statute on murder, but it also applies to assaults. The state defines extreme emotional disturbance like this:

(A) person shall not be guilty under this subsection if he acted under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse, the reasonableness of which is to be determined from the viewpoint of a person in the defendant’s situation under the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be.

On its own, first-degree assault is a class B felony, which carries a prison sentence of between 10 to 20 years in prison, with the defendant required to serve 85 percent of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole. But assault under extreme emotional disturbance is vastly different.

If the jury finds Johnson guilty of first-degree assault under extreme emotional disturbance, the offense drops to a class D felony, punishable by between one and five years in prison. Also a person convicted of a class D felony only has to serve 20 percent of his sentence before becoming parole-eligible. That’s a big difference in potential sentences.

Hypothetically, Johnson could argue that his and Ward’s “on again, off again” relationship — which went on for a period of months and resulted in Johnson moving in and out of Ward’s house several times — had destabilized him, and that hearing Ward talking to Knott on Nov. 8 in her home was a triggering event that caused him to lash out. It’s not an impossible standard, but case law says Johnson must demonstrate he suffered more than “mere hurt or anger.”

In such a case, jurors would basically agree that Johnson acted impulsively, after suffering what he considered a personal apocalypse. They would agree is act was wrong, but was done while Johnson was in a highly irrational state, due to the  sudden emotional upheaval.

Prosecutors, however, are likely to argue that crime was premeditated. Sheriff’s deputies have already testified about finding four cigarette butts stomped out in the carpet of Ward’s bedroom. That could suggest Johnson was waiting in the home for some time, which potentially undercuts any argument that Johnson acted in the “heat of the moment.”

Jurors have already heard substantial evidence against Johnson, including Johnson being identified as the shooter by Ward, and testimony from Johnson’s sister, who told the jury Johnson confessed to shooting “them” shortly after the incident. Also, bullets and shell casings found in the home after the shooting were tied to the handgun found in Johnson’s vehicle during Wednesday’s testimony, by analysts from the Kentucky State Police.

Given the weight of the evidence so far, and given that the defense has already acknowledged Johnson was in the home the evening of the shooting, arguing “extreme emotional disturbance” may be the defense’s strongest strategy. But the only person who can really make that case is Johnson himself, from the witness stand. That strategy carries risks of its own. Prosecutors dream of getting a defendant on the stand and trapping them in front of a jury.

Anyway, the defense strategy will become clear, one way or another, tomorrow. The trial resumes at 10 a.m. Thursday, with the jury likely to begin deliberations sometime that afternoon.




Man at bar fights law, law wins

September 30, 2014

A Lock Avenue man was charged with felony third-degree assault on a police officer early Sunday morning, after battling officers and security at an Owensboro bar.

OPD reports say officers were called to a disturbance at Milligan’s Bar on West Second Street at 12:53 a.m. Sunday morning. Reports say when officers arrived, they found three security officers attempting to hold down a man, who was later identified as Justin P. Allen, 24, of the 1700 block of Lock Avenue.

Reports say Allen was screaming and yelling. When officers attempted to cuff Allen, he grabbed an officer by the leg in an attempt to knock the officer down. At that point, Allen was stunned with a Tazer, reports say.

Allen continued to yell at officers all the way to the Daviess County Detention Center; reports say, in particular, Allen threatened to kill OPD Officer Joe Bob Jones and Jones’ family. Allen also threatened to beat up another officer “once he got out of jail,” reports said.

Allen was charged with third-degree assault (police officer), alcohol intoxication, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and third-degree terrroristic threatening.

New trial date set, after assault trial ends in mistrial

September 26, 2014

A new trial date has been set for an Owensboro man whose assault trial ended abruptly Wednesday morning in a mistrial.

Matthew D. Padgett, 22, was on trial on two counts of third-degree assault, for allegedly spitting on a deputy jailer and attempted to strike another jailer in the groin or thigh during a Feb. 9 incident at the jail. The trial ended after one of Padgett’s defense attorneys asked one of the deputy jailers a question that had previously been barred by the judge’s ruling. Daviess Circuit Judge Joe Castlen granted Commonwealth’s Attorney Bruce Kuegel’s motion for a mistrial, saying the jury had been affected by the improper question.

Padgett’s new trial date is set for Feb. 25. Castlen said previously his trial docket for the rest of this year is already full.

Woman charged after stuffing bra with drugs

September 25, 2014

A Center Street woman was arrested by OPD narcotics investigators Wednesday evening, after detectives found the woman was carrying a pharmacy full of drugs in her bra.

OPD reports say detectives from the street crimes unit were called to a home in the 1500 block of Center Street at about 5 p.m. Wednesday, to investigate reports of drug activity. When they arrived, the occupants of the home agreed to let detectives search the residence.

Reports say during the search, detectives found scales believed used in drug trafficking.

Reports say the detectives asked one of the home’s occupants, Ruth M. Goatee, 27, if she had any drugs on her. At first, Goatee denied she was holding any drugs, but then “pulled out a large bag of drugs from her bra,” reports said.

The bag contained what investigators believed was several grams of methamphetamine, heroin, Percocets, Lortabs, Xanax, marijuana and MSM, which is mixed with drugs to increase the quantity, the reports say.

Goatee was taken to the Daviess County Detention Center. At the jail, deputy jailers found two additional bags in Goatee’s bra, which contained a substance investigators believe to be methamphetamine, reports say.

Goatee told investigators, “she did not know the drugs were still in her bra,” reports say.

Goatee was charged with first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance, second-degree trafficking in a controlled substance, third-degree trafficking in a controlled substance, promoting contraband, trafficking in marijuana under 8 ounce, possession of drug paraphernalia and tampering with physical evidence.

Alleged drunk dialing goes wrong for Owensboro woman

September 25, 2014

Here’s a tip: If you’re intoxicated, in a public place and don’t want to get arrested, do not call the police.

A woman learned that lesson the hard way Wednesday, after allegedly calling police and then denying it at an Owensboro motel.

OPD reports say officers were called to the Cadillac Motel on West Second Street Wednesday night, after a woman called 911 and told told dispatchers she had been spat upon by a man after she refused to sell methamphetamine for him.

Reports say while officers were en route, an hotel employee called police to report a woman was causing a disturbance. When officers arrived, the woman, later identified as Brenda M. Humphrey, 29, homeless, told officers: “I did not call the #&@!?#@!! police! I do not have a phone!”

Humphrey was charged with public intoxication and transported to the Daviess County Detention Center.

Intoxicated man run over by car, feels no pain

September 5, 2014

A man was taken to Owensboro Health Regional Hospital early Friday for treatment of what officers assumed were injuries, after the man was run over on Cravens Avenue.

Owensboro Police Department reports say Samuel J. Sloan, of the 3000 block of Cravens Avenue was pulling into his driveway at 12:05 a.m. Friday, when he noticed a hat laying on sidewalk near his drive.

As he pulled into the driveway, Sloan “felt a bump, as if he ran over a dog or something,” OPD reports say. When Sloan got out, he found a man laying in his driveway, reports say.

The man Jerry B. Winstead, who is from out of town, “was extremely intoxicated and stated he had fallen asleep in the driveway,” reports say. Winstead “was too intoxicated to say if he was injured” and was taken to Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, where he was treated and released.

Isn’t that stuff supposed to make you mellow?

September 3, 2014

Owensboro police are investigating an assault that occurred Tuesday, where the victim says he was assaulted over allegations of missing marijuana.

OPD reports say officers were called to a home on Hughes Avenue Tuesday to respond to an assault. Reports say the victim told officers he and an acquaintance got into a disagreement, after the acquaintance accused the victim of stealing some marijuana. 

The victim protested his innocence, OPD reports say. The victim told officers he even “got butt naked” in order to show his friend that he was not hiding any marijuana on his person, reports say. The victim told officers the acquaintance then picked up a belt and began beating the victim.

The victim did not require medical treatment.