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New trial sought for convicted killer

ATLANTA --- Michael Johnson was outnumbered and fighting for his life against a man who had a violent past.

That's what Mr. Johnson's new attorney Brian Steele, of Atlanta, argued before the Georgia Supreme Court on Monday. He also argued that Mr. Johnson's trial lawyer, Jacque Hawk, of Augusta, did a poor job of defending him.

Mr. Johnson is serving a life sentence for his conviction in McDuffie County Superior Court for the killing of Todd Brooks at Mr. Johnson's mobile home on Thanksgiving eve 2006. Mr. Brooks was shot multiple times at the home not far from Thomson.

The 31-year-old Mr. Johnson is serving his sentence at Macon State Prison.

Georgia Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Pierman contending the guilty verdict and life sentence for murder should stand because the trial defense was sufficient.

During Monday's hearing, the state's highest justices asked few questions and offered no clues as to how they might rule. A decision is due by April.

Before the fatal shooting, Mr. Brooks and a close friend happened by Mr. Johnson's residence where he saw 17-year-old Rebecca Heacock -- a girl whom he had told family members was like a daughter to him. Miss Heacock was living with Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Brooks tried to get her to return to her mother's home in Thomson.

Mr. Brooks convinced Miss Heacock to leave because of the age difference between her and Mr. Johnson, but a fight broke out between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brooks and ended in the fatal shooting of Mr. Brooks.

At the hearing in Atlanta, Mr. Steel said his client received a blow to the head during the fight.

Mr. Johnson testified at his trial that he saw stars and believed that he was going to die. At the time of the trial, Mr. Hawk, who defended his client by himself, argued the murder was a case of self defense. Today, Mr. Steel says Mr. Hawk didn't do enough in terms of attempting to prove that point.

Mr. Steel told the seven justices that a new trial is required because Mr. Hawk didn't do a good enough job in two respects.

Mr. Steel said Mr. Hawk should have known the law better and presented evidence during the trial about a fight two years earlier involving Mr. Brooks, his brother, sister-in-law and nephew against two women and a handicapped boy. Mr. Hawk decided not to bring up the 2004 fight to jurors because he didn't want prosecutors to counter with testimony about Mr. Brooks' community work, such as having built a bridge at Sweetwater Park and serving as a volunteer youth sports coach. Mr. Steel told the justices that Mr. Hawk should have known previous court precedent would limit that testimony to Mr. Brooks' peaceable nature.

Second, Mr. Steel said Mr. Hawk should have sought testimony from McDuffie County Sheriff's Department Sgt. First Class Mike Hobbs, who transported Mr. Johnson and could have told of seeing a large lump on the defendant's head that would have helped make the case that Mr. Johnson was in a fight for his life.

Mr. Pierman defended Mr. Hawk, who has practiced law 25 years -- mostly in the criminal arena. Mr. Hawk wasn't ineffective, Mr. Piernman said. Instead, he had sound reasons for not bringing up the 2004 fight or seeking the deputy sergeant.

Putting Sgt. Hobbs on the stand would have given the prosecution a friendly witness who would have testified that the lump on the back of Mr. Johnson's head could have been caused by authorities tackling him when he resisted arrest. That wouldn't have made Mr. Johnson seem like a victim.

"In reviewing Johnson's attorney's failure to call Sgt. Hobbs, this court needs to understand that the good that come from the sergeant's testimony could have come with the bad," Mr. Pierman said.

Regarding the 2004 fight, Mr. Pierman said the victims never mentioned Mr. Brooks. Instead, Mr. Brooks' brother, Steve Brooks, told authorities at the time that Todd Brooks was the peacemaker when he arrived.

(Billy Hobbs, a reporter with The McDuffie Mirror and Morris News Service, contributed to this article).



Web posted on Thursday, November 12, 2009













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