Atlanta defense attorney Brian Steel is seeking a new trial for one of his newest clients - Michael Samuel Johnson, who is serving a life in prison, plus five years sentence for the 2006 shooting death of McDuffie County businessman Todd Brooks.
A number of witnesses and family members crowded into a small hearing room at the McDuffie County Law Enforcement Center in Thomson last Friday where Mr. Steel attempted to establish reasons why Mr. Johnson deserves a new trial. Security remained tight during the hearing, as was the case when Mr. Johnson stood trial last year.
Representing the Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office was Durwood "Woody" Davis, who serves as chief assistant district attorney. He also was aided by Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Scene Specialist Steve Foster.
Two of the witnesses called by Mr. Steel during the day-long hearing, which was heard by Toombs Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Roger W. Dunaway, Jr., included Mr. Johnson's trial lawyer, Jacque Hawk, of Augusta and Ross M. Gardner, a crime scene expert and author of several books pertaining to that subject.
After testimony from a number of witnesses, Judge Dunaway requested that attorneys prepare their closing remarks in writing and that they be kept as brief as possible. He is expected to make a ruling on the motion for a new trial in about a month.
In calling Mr. Hawk to testify, Mr. Steel attempted to establish that Mr. Johnson did not receive adequate defense representation during his January 2008 jury trial in McDuffie County Superior Court, based on a number of points.
Mr. Hawk admitted that he did not make a number of objections to statements made by Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis C. Sanders that he should have made during the trial. And in closing arguments, in which Judge Dunaway granted each side an hour to convince jurors about their case, Mr. Hawk said he should have objected after being informed by Mr. Steel that in capital cases, two hours are given for closing remarks.
Mr. Hawk, who has been practicing law since 1984, said he apparently became confused about the length of time for closing comments in a capital case. He also confessed that because he had only an hour in which to plea his client's case before jurors that it rushed him.
"I did the best I could to tailor to the argument," Mr. Hawk said.
In other instances of where he did not object to various statements by Mr. Sanders, he indicated that it was the result of strategy. One such instance was when he informed jurors that Mr. Johnson was facing a criminal charge for possession of a silencer - a federal offense.
Mr. Hawk also was questioned about his emotional state at the time of the trial since his father had just passed away two weeks before. He openly wept during that questioning as he did during the end of Mr. Johnson's murder trial.
The defense attorney said there were times when it became hard to concentrate or to focus.
Under questioning by Mr. Davis, Mr. Hawk admitted that his former client possessed a lot of guns at his mobile home, off the Wrens Highway where Mr. Brooks was shot six times in a bathroom.
"There were a lot of guns in the house," Mr. Hawk said. "He had a significant number of guns."
He also told Mr. Davis that he wished he'd had more time to argue the law in the instance of reasonable doubt and tell jurors how the law applied to each of the charges against his client at the time.
Mr. Steele also brought to the stand Ross M. Gardner, a crime scene analysis expert, from Atlanta. Mr. Gardner offered different views concerning some of the crime scene evidence and conclusions referenced by Agent Foster.
Mr. Johnson's new lawyer also called several other witnesses, including Stevie Brooks, Todd Brooks' brother, about an incident that occurred on Nov. 11, 2004 where a group of people reportedly were beaten up after a car reportedly struck Stevie Brooks' 16-year-old son.