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Johnson gets life in Brooks' murder case

No one disputed that Michael Samuel Johnson shot Todd Brooks to death the day before Thanksgiving in 2006.

But three days of arguments and witnesses and three hours of jury deliberation last week in McDuffie County Superior Court focused on one question: Was he justified in pulling the trigger of the .38 caliber revolver six times that cold November night in his Wrens Highway mobile home?

In the end, a jury of eight women and four men convicted Mr. Johnson of felony murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of certain crimes. Jurors, meanwhile, returned a not guilty verdict against Mr. Johnson on a charge of malice murder. The verdicts were announced in open court by McDuffie County Superior Court Clerk Connie Cheatham.

Toombs Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Roger W. Dunaway, Jr., sentenced Mr. Johnson, 29, to life in prison, plus five years. The sentences handed down by Judge Dunaway are to run consecutively.

Mr. Johnson, according to Mr. Hawk, is expected to be eligible for parole in about 14 years. Mr. Hawk said he will be filing a motion for a new trial - a practice that is common in cases where a life sentence is handed down.

Prior to Mr. Johnson's remarks, a number of victim impact statements were read in open court, including one from Mr. Brooks' wife, Missy Brooks and their three children - whose ages range from 4 to 12.

After the sentencing Mr. Sanders and members of his staff walked over to Mrs. Brooks, other family members and friends and shook hands and shared embraces. A round of applause later erupted for him and his staff after the court proceeding concluded.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is being held in the McDuffie County Law Enforcement Center in Thomson, awaiting transfer by Georgia Department of Corrections officials to a state prison. He also faces sentencing in U.S. Federal Court in Augusta after recently pleading guilty to possession of a silencer handgun - a federal offense. Mr. Hawk told The McDuffie Mirror that his client is expected to draw a prison sentence of three to five years on the weapon charge. The silencer was discovered inside the mobile home of Mr. Johnson after a search warrant was executed by agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation following the fatal shooting.

The trial began under heavy security - with officers from several agencies participating - with jury selection and opening arguments last Tuesday. It culminated Thursday afternoon with closing argument from both the prosecution and defense teams. Mr. Sanders yielded his opportunity to go first to Mr. Hawk at 2:30 p.m.

Mr. Hawk pointed out that testimony showed that Teddy Grimes, a friend of Mr. Brooks, who was with him at the time of the shooting at Mr. Johnson's mobile home, believed something was going to happen "before my client did anything." Mr. Grimes, who was the prosecution's second witness on day one of the trial, testified that he planned to drive on by the mobile home as Mr. Brooks tried to convince 17-year-old Rebecca Heacock to leave the Johnson residence and go home with him for Thanksgiving.

"It didn't have anything to do with Michael Johnson at that time," Mr. Hawk said.

Mr. Johnson, he noted, was cordial when Mr. Brooks and Mr. Grimes came to his residence seeking permission to search for a deer that had run into the side of Mrs. Brooks' car earlier that night.

Mr. Hawk said the shooting was the result of an argument between Mr. Brooks and Mr. Johnson over Miss Heacock - who was in a relationship with Mr. Johnson. He said Mr. Brooks and Mr. Grimes made things worse by refusing to leave Mr. Johnson's home.

"Mr. Johnson begged them repeatedly to leave," Mr. Hawk said.

After a struggle with a deer rifle between Mr. Brooks and Mr. Johnson, Mr. Grimes became involved, Mr. Hawk said, making it two on one. Fearing for his life, Mr. Johnson grabbed the handgun and started shooting to make the fight stop, according to Mr. Hawk.

"They (Mr. Brooks and Mr. Johnson) were hell bent on beating him (Mr. Johnson)," Mr. Hawk added.

He said his client had no choice. As Mr. Hawk closed, Mr. Johnson became emotional, wiping away tears with a tissue, while seated at the defense table.

"He (Michael Johnson) was dealing with a hard-headed drunk, a self-appointed cop," said Mr. Hawk, referring to Mr. Brooks, who had a blood alcohol content of more than twice the legal limit for driving that night. "… Michael hates this happened, but he had to do something."

But he wasn't driving, and that makes all the difference, according to Mr. Sanders. Mr. Brooks went to Mr. Johnson's house as a passenger in Mr. Grimes' pickup truck, he said.

During his closing comments, Mr. Sanders said the prosecution had spent several days muddying the waters in the trial, instead of offering plausible explanations and evidence. He said Mr. Hawk had attempted to discredit professionals, including accusing GBI Crime Scene Specialist Steve Foster of planting evidence.

Mr. Sanders also attacked any claims of self-defense.

Evidence revealed that Mr. Brooks was shot six times and that Mr. Johnson had an arsenal of weapons in his home - 17 in all, according to testimony from Agent Foster, who assisted Mr. Sanders during the trial.

"You have a right to hit me back, if I hit you," Mr. Sanders said in an example to jurors. "That's self-defense. But you don't have a right to shoot me. That's excessive force."

He said jurors should look at what really matters in the case.

"It's not about legal principles," Mr. Sanders said. "It's about life and how precious it is. We should never take a human life unless it's absolutely the last resort."

And he begged them to not forget about the man who was shot to death that night.

"Don't you forget about him," Mr. Sanders said. "He was a good man."

Web posted on Thursday, January 24, 2008

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