Jurors will be allowed to hear a Little Rock murder suspect's admission to police that he was with the man he is accused of killing hours before the victim's body was found, a Pulaski County circuit judge ruled Thursday.
Judge Chris Piazza rejected claims by John Ellis Johnson and his attorney, Willard Proctor, that police had illegally questioned Johnson while investigating the April 2016 slaying of 50-year-old Keith Williams.
Johnson, 36, is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree battery, accused of two shootings hours apart on that same day -- the killing of Williams and the shooting of James Washington. Ballistics testing shows the same gun was used in both shootings.
The judge cleared Johnson's recorded interview with police for trial, but Piazza said he would need to hear more arguments before he can decide whether a cryptic remark to investigators attributed to Johnson can be used as evidence at his trial next month.
"He said over and over that he was only the end and not what started the chain of events," detective Aaron Oncken testified, saying Johnson made the remarks during the investigation into the Washington shooting.
Oncken and detective Terry McDaniel told the judge that Johnson's comments came before they could read him his rights or ask him anything about the shooting. Johnson then asked to speak to federal authorities, refused to answer any police questions and asked for his lawyer.
Senior deputy prosecutor Melanie Martin argued that Johnson's remarks should be allowed at trial because they were spontaneous statements that he voluntarily made without police asking him any questions.
Proctor told the judge that the comments should be barred from trial because Johnson was under arrest when he said them and that police had missed an opportunity to "Mirandize" Johnson to ensure he knew he was not obligated to answer their questions.
Johnson was arrested about a week after the shootings and has been jailed ever since. He did not testify at Wednesday's hearing, but he did participate in the cross-examination of the police witnesses.
Handcuffed and wearing his orange jail jumpsuit, Johnson stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his lawyer, who occasionally whispered advice to him, while he questioned police about their warrant procedures and how they had prepared photographs used in the investigation.
The investigation that led to Johnson's arrest began with the discovery of Williams' bloody body about 8:20 a.m. April 16, 2016, beside a house on Dennison Street next to Interstate 630.
The last person known to have seen the victim alive, 49-year-old Veronica Rice, told police that Williams left her 28th Street home with Johnson about 2 a.m. that morning. Testifying Thursday, she said she'd known Johnson for several years and had no doubt Johnson had gone with him, even though she had warned Williams against it.
"I said, 'Don't leave with him.' I said, 'This is not right, don't leave with him,'" Rice told the judge.
Johnson had twice been to her house that night to see Williams, and Rice told the judge something about Johnson's demeanor made her suspicious. She said Williams left with Johnson both times. He returned the first time after about an hour, but never returned the second time.
Questioned two days later, Johnson said that Williams owed him some money for crack cocaine and that he went to Williams to collect the money for the drugs.
"I'm going over there to talk to him about the money that he owed me," less than $100, he told investigators. "He said he wanted to get some money so he can go ahead and finish paying me."
Johnson told the detectives that Williams directed him to a location where he dropped Williams off then went home.
His lawyer told the judge that police should have read Johnson his rights before questioning him, but the detectives, Greg Siegler and Tommy Hudson, testified that Johnson was not a suspect then. Johnson agreed to the interview and was not under arrest. He could have stopped the questioning and left at any time, they testified.
Washington, the shooting victim, told the judge that he'd never seen Johnson before the man shot him that day. He'd been at the Cedar Ridge West apartments at 5517 W. 51st St. where his niece lived, for her birthday party, Washington said. He'd stepped outside to smoke a cigarette when Johnson approached him.
"He told me he knew one of my homeboys, and he walked off," Washington testified. "I started getting a bad vibe."
Washington said he finished his cigarette and started walking back to his niece's apartment when Johnson opened fire, shooting him in both legs.
"I seen three shots -- pow, pow, pow!" Washington testified. "By then I'm running around trying to find cover so I don't take no more bullets."
Once police connected Washington's shooting to Williams' slaying and showed Washington a six-picture photo lineup, Washington quickly identified Johnson as the gunman. He told the judge he is certain Johnson is the man who shot him.
"I know that's him. No doubt," he said.
Metro on 08/17/2018
Print Headline: Judge in murder trial to allow suspect's admission that he was with victim