Amid tightened security by local and state law enforcement officers, the murder trial of Michael Samuel Johnson got underway in McDuffie County Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon with a jury having been selected and testimony coming from a pair of prosecution witnesses.
A jury of eight women and four men were selected Tuesday morning to hear the case of Mr. Johnson, who is accused of shooting to death 36-year-old Todd Brooks on Nov. 22, 2006 following an altercation inside the mobile home of Mr. Johnson, located off Wrens Highway near Thomson. Mr. Brooks, a self-employed businessman, was shot six times, said Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis C. Sanders, during his opening statements to jurors.
Mr. Johnson, 29, who has been jailed since the night of the shooting, is charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of certain crimes. The defendant maintains he is innocent. He is being defended by Augusta attorney Jacque Hawk.
This week's trial is being presided over by McDuffie County Superior Court Chief Judge Roger W. Dunaway Jr.
Security measures were tightened amidst threats on the life of Mr. Johnson back when he appeared for a bond hearing months ago. And because of those threats then, Sheriff Logan Marshall decided it best to again tighten security during the course of the defendant's trial. The sheriff brought in several of his deputies, along with state troopers from the Georgia State Patrol and Georgia Department of Natural Resources. A number of court bailiffs also are involved in providing security. A GSP helicopter also was used Tuesday - the copter making several flyovers at the courthouse.
"I felt we needed to beef up security for this trial to protect Mr. Johnson and the public," Sheriff Marshall said.
Mr. Johnson, clad in dark slacks, a navy shirt and a neck tie, sat between his defense attorney and an associate. From time to time, Mr. Johnson conferred with Mr. Hawk and participated in sidebar discussions between his attorney, Mr. Sanders and Judge Dunaway.
The jury hearing the case was chosen from a pool of just 44 of the 100 persons who were summoned and actually came to court as instructed. Local authorities were instructed by Judge Dunaway to find the missing jurors, noting that their failure to show up for jury duty could lead to a contempt citation order being filed against them.
Prior to opening statements by Mr. Sanders and Mr. Hawk, Judge Dunaway cautioned those in the courtroom, including a large gathering of persons related to Mr. Brooks and his wife, that emotional outbursts would not be tolerated. Those refusing to abide by his order could be cited for contempt of court.
"This trial has to be clean," Judge Dunaway said. "It has to be sterile."
He instructed jurors that their job is to determine the facts of the case, based on the evidence.
"The object of this trial is to discover the truth," Judge Dunaway said, noting that jurors are "fact finders."
In opening statements, Mr. Sanders explained that Mr. Brooks and a close friend of his, Ted Grimes of North Augusta, S.C. went to Mr. Johnson's home on the night of Nov. 22, 2006 in search of a big buck with a big rack. The deer had been struck by Mr. Brooks' wife, Missy, earlier that night. The mishap occurred near the driveway of Mr. Johnson's mobile home and caused about $3,500 worth of damages to Mrs. Brooks' car.
Inside the mobile home of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Grimes sought permission to look for the deer. Answering the door was Mr. Johnson's friend, Roger Sturkey of Warrenton. At the time, according to Mr. Sanders, Mr. Johnson retrieved his rifle - apparently believing he might need it if the deer wasn't dead.
Before leaving, Mr. Brooks spotted 17-year-old Rebecca Heacock, whom he had known since she was a little girl. His nickname for the girl was "Baby," Mr. Sanders said.
The district attorney said Mr. Brooks asked her what she was doing there and that that wasn't the place for her to be. He then telephoned her mother, Debra Heacock, Mr. Sanders said.
"He (Todd Brooks) tells her strongly, you're coming with me, even if I have to whip his ass," Mr. Sanders added, referring to Mr. Johnson. Mr. Sanders pointed out that Mr. Brooks had drink a beer or two earlier, while frying a turkey at his shop before his wife's accident with the deer.
Mr. Sanders contends that Mr. Johnson later struck Mr. Brooks with the butt of the rifle and that a struggle for the rifle ensued between the two men. Mr. Grimes was able to snatch the gun away at which time a physical altercation erupted between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brooks.
There was a lot of swinging at each other, but little connecting going on, Mr. Sanders said. Seconds later, both men had fallen to the floor. It was there that Mr. Brooks was shot six times, including a head wound.
Looking at jurors, Mr. Sanders asked: "Did Todd Brooks deserve to be shot six times while lying on the floor? Did Todd deserve to die?"
Mr. Hawk, meanwhile, admitted that his client shot Mr. Brooks. But the shooting was in self-defense, he said.
"My client shot Todd Brooks six times," Mr. Hawk said. "We don't dispute that in any shape, form or fashion. He (Mr. Johnson) has never denied shooting Todd Brooks."
Mr. Hawk described his client as an avid gun collector. During the course of the investigation by authorities into the fatal shooting, lawmen found 17 assorted guns in Mr. Johnson's home. One of the guns was a silencer - which is illegal to possess and was brought to the attention of federal authorities, testimony later revealed.
Mr. Hawk said Miss Heacock did not want to go with Mr. Brooks, because he had been drinking. The defense attorney said Mr. Johnson kept telling Mr. Brooks that he needed to leave his home.
Mrs. Brooks was the first witness to testify before Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Steve Foster was called to the stand by Mr. Sanders. Agent Foster, a crime scene specialist, performed two different searches of Mr. Johnson's residence - taking up about 10 hours.
Agent Foster testified that the gun used to kill Mr. Brooks was a RG 38-caliber revolver.