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Johnson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 7, 2019


          Peterson, Justice.

         James Melvin Johnson, Jr., appeals his convictions for malice murder and armed robbery stemming from the shooting death of Tony Rogers.[1] Johnson argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his murder conviction because, although he was seen with Rogers prior to his death, there was no physical evidence that he killed Rogers. He also argues that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his armed robbery conviction because the evidence fails to show that he took Rogers's property by force. We affirm because the evidence was sufficient to support Johnson's convictions.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the trial evidence shows that around 7:30 p.m. on August 16, 1995, Johnson was at a place known as the "Hole" located off U.S. Highway 41 in Rocky Face. Johnson, who lived about a half-mile from the Hole, was driving his white Ford truck.

         That same evening, Rogers went to dinner with his wife and a mutual friend, and the trio made plans to go to a bar to hear live music. Rogers wanted to visit another friend before going to the bar and told his wife that he would meet her at the bar later that night. Rogers left his wife around 8:00 p.m., driving his black Pontiac Sunbird. Before he left, Rogers checked to make sure he had money in his wallet; he had three dollars in it.

         Rogers was next seen at the Hole around 8:30 p.m., when he talked briefly to an acquaintance of his, Mike Rains. A half hour later, Rains saw Rogers talking to another man sitting in a white Ford truck. Rains saw Rogers leave the Hole around 9:15 p.m.; Rogers was driving his car and following the white Ford truck.

         Around that time, Johnson arrived at Paul and Penny Ledford's house in his truck that was being followed by a dark car. Johnson asked to leave his truck there, but did not explain why. Johnson was acting nervous and hurried. Paul Ledford allowed Johnson to leave his truck, and Johnson left in the dark car that Paul Ledford later reported may have been driven by Rogers. The dark car headed north on U.S. Highway 41 toward Ringgold.

         Around 9:50 p.m., two individuals called 911 after finding a body along the side of the road in a heavily wooded area known as Taylor Ridge, located just south of Ringgold in Catoosa County. The individuals led police to the body; the body was warm to the touch, but was unresponsive, and had blood around the head and arms. Officers did not find a wallet on or near the body but did recover some loose change in the victim's pocket. Police also observed suspected brain matter and a penny in the middle of the road, about six feet from where the body lay.

         Johnson arrived at his uncle's residence near Taylor Ridge several hours later. Johnson was scratched up and his shoes were muddy, and he told his uncle that he broke his ankle. Johnson asked to use his uncle's phone and called Thomas Flores around 4:00 a.m., asking that Flores give him a ride to retrieve his truck. Flores, Flores' mother, and another individual picked up Johnson at a gas station off U.S. Highway 41 near Ringgold and took Johnson to his truck. Johnson had a big tear in his pants and had trouble walking and claimed that someone "jumped" him. After being dropped off, Johnson gave Flores three dollars for gas money.

         Detectives later identified the body as Rogers. An autopsy revealed two gunshot wounds to the head. The first shot was not fatal but likely caused Rogers to lose consciousness, while the second shot was a fatal shot to the back of the head. Based on Rogers's wounds, the shooter was standing in front of Rogers for the first gunshot and fired an execution-style shot from behind for the second.

         Detectives also located Rogers's vehicle about one-and-a-half miles from where his body was found. A crime scene technician recovered a number of latent fingerprints from Rogers's vehicle. A fingerprint examiner later compared known prints of Johnson to some of the recovered prints and concluded that three of the recovered prints were a match for Johnson.

         Based on information that the victim was last seen talking to a man in an older white truck and that Johnson drove such a truck, police asked to interview Johnson. Johnson voluntarily went to the police station for an interview; the interview was video recorded and played for the jury.[2] Johnson admitted to the lead investigator that he was at the Hole on the evening of August 16, 1995, claiming that he was there only briefly around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. to smoke a cigarette. Johnson also said he drove around for five to six hours after that. Johnson claimed that in the early hours of August 17, three men jumped him, put him into a car, hit his feet with a baseball bat, and abducted him. Johnson said he called Flores around 3:00 a.m., when the three men kicked him out of the vehicle, and Flores took him to retrieve his truck. Johnson denied knowing Rogers or that anyone followed him when he left the Hole.

         At a later interview, which was also video recorded and played for the jury,[3] Johnson was read his Miranda rights and waived them. Johnson admitted that Rogers approached his vehicle sometime between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. in Rocky Face. Johnson reported that he offered to sell Rogers some marijuana, and then he left in his truck with Rogers following. After dropping off his truck at the Ledfords, Johnson got into Rogers's car, and they drove to the Taylor Ridge area because, according to Johnson, he had marijuana buried in the woods there. Johnson said that, once there, Rogers asked if Johnson would accept oral sex in exchange for some marijuana. Johnson said he refused, got out of the car, and walked off. Johnson claimed that he heard two gunshots about two minutes later, saw a tan truck a few minutes after that, and began to run because he was scared. He also told the police that he injured his feet and ankles while running through the woods. Johnson repeatedly denied shooting Rogers.

         At trial, Rogers's widow and a friend both testified that Rogers was never seen smoking marijuana, did not like drugs, and was bothered by cigarettes.

         2. In his sole argument on appeal, Johnson argues that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions for malice ...

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