Amid tight security by local and state law enforcement officers, the murder trial of Michael Samuel Johnson opened Tuesday in McDuffie County Superior Court 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 afternoon 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 Mr. Johnson's mobile home, located off the 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.
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, that emotional outbursts would not be tolerated. Those refusing to abide by his order could be cited for contempt of court.
In their opening statements, both attorneys posed questions to the jurors that struck at the heart of the case. Neither attorney disputes that Mr. Johnson shot Mr. Brooks. At issue is motive and what led to the shooting.
Both sides say Mr. Brooks and his best friend, Ted Grimes, went to Mr. Johnson's mobile home on Nov. 22, 2006, to search for a deer that was struck earlier in the night by Mr. Brooks' wife, Missy. While at the home, Mr. Brooks saw 17-year-old Rebecca Heacock, whom he had known since she was a little girl. He told Miss Heacock she was leaving the mobile home.
And that's where the stories diverge.
Prosecutors say Mr. Johnson tried to stop Mr. Brooks from leaving with the woman, even leveling a rifle at him to make him leave the mobile home. As Mr. Brooks was leaving, Mr. Johnson hit him in the head with the butt of the rifle, starting a fight that ended with Mr. Brooks being shot six times - including once in the head - while he was lying on the mobile home's floor.
"Did Todd Brooks deserve to be shot six times while lying on the floor?" Mr. Sanders asked jurors. "Did Todd deserve to die?"
On the other side, Mr. Hawk contends that Mr. Brooks and Mr. Grimes ganged up on Mr. Johnson, taking his rifle and brutally beating him throughout the mobile home. He only grabbed the RG .38-caliber revolver to protect himself. Plus, Miss Heacock never wanted to leave with Mr. Brooks because he'd been drinking, Mr. Hawk said.
Mr. Hawk closed his opening statement by asking jurors if it was OK for a man to protect himself and his property, especially if he feels threatened.
Tuesday's session closed with testimony from Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Steve Foster, a crime scene specialist who spent more than 10 hours processing the scene. Part of his testimony focused on the arsenal of weapons Mr. Johnson kept in the mobile home. In all, authorities recovered 17 guns - a mix of rifles, shotguns and pistols - including the revolver used in the shooting. Mr. Hawk said Mr. Johnson is an avid gun collector and that several of the guns were unloaded when found. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson faces federal weapons charges because one of the guns was outfitted with an illegal silencer, according to Mr. Foster's testimony.
1) brooks_trial2.eps -- cutline: Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Steve Foster shows jurors the gun used in the November 2006 shooting of Todd Brooks.
2) brooks_trial6.eps -- cutline: Michael Johnson, who is facing murder charges in the shooting death of Todd Brooks, listens to testimony on Tuesday at the McDuffie County Courthouse.