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Supreme Court rejects claims of bad counsel

Justices with the Supreme Court of Georgia have affirmed that there is no merit to claims that convicted murderer Michael Samuel Johnson received ineffective counsel during his January 2008 jury trial in McDuffie County Superior Court in Thomson, The McDuffie Mirror has learned.

News of the Supreme Court's unanimous decision came down on Monday and was met with pleasure from Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis C. Sanders.

"I am both pleased and relieved with the high court's ruling," Mr. Sanders said shortly after receiving word of the court's decision.

Mr. Johnson, who lived in a mobile home off the Wrens Highway near Thomson, was convicted by a jury on Jan. 18, 2008 of shooting to death Todd Brooks, a local self-employed businessman and volunteer coach with the Thomson-McDuffie Recreation and Leisure Services. The shooting occurred on Nov. 22, 2006 at the home of Mr. Johnson.

On Jan. 25, 2008, Toombs Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Roger W. Dunaway, Jr. sentenced Mr. Johnson to life in prison after he was found guilty of felony murder. Mr. Johnson also received a consecutive five year prison sentence for possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

The trial jury found Mr. Johnson not guilty of malice murder. Mr. Johnson had his defense attorney in Atlanta file a motion seeking a new trial. The motion was amended on Nov. 17, 2008. The trial court denied his motion for a new trial on April 7, 2009. Then on April 23, 2009, Mr. Johnson's attorney filed a notice of appeal with the Supreme Court of Georgia. The appeal was orally argued before the state's high court in Atlanta on Nov. 9, 2009.

Mr. Brooks was shot in a bathroom of Mr. Johnson's home after the two men, along with a friend of Mr. Brooks, Ted Grimes, struggled over a rifle that Mr. Johnson had in his hands.

Testifying in his own defense, Mr. Johnson said at his trial that Mr. Brooks charged him and grabbed his rifle. Mr. Johnson said at one point he used a couch as a buffer between himself and Mr. Brooks. The couch, according to Mr. Johnson, was thrown out of the way by Mr. Brooks.

Mr. Johnson claimed he feared for his life and had pointed the rifle at Mr. Brooks, demanding that he leave his home.

During the struggle, Mr. Johnson said he was struck in the head and that the struggle later extended into the kitchen. At that time, Mr. Johnson said he reached for a .38-caliber revolver handgun, which he had stored in a kitchen drawer. Mr. Johnson added that someone hit him hard enough for him to "see stars" and that he didn't think the beating was going to stop.

Mr. Brooks, according to Mr. Johnson, was on him and there was nothing he could do. Saying he had no choice, Mr. Johnson said he fired the revolver at Mr. Brooks. He indicated that he didn't take aim - merely that he just pointed it and shot as fast as he could. He said he then dropped the gun and ran out the back door to avoid Mr. Grimes, who still was armed with his rifle.

Mr. Johnson actually ended up at his father's home nearby. There, Mr. Johnson told Floyd Johnson that he had shot Mr. Brooks.

In rebuttal testimony by Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Scene Specialist Steve Foster said he found no blood evidence consistent that Mr. Brooks had been shot in the kitchen. Instead, forensic evidence was consistent that Mr. Brooks actually had been shot in a bathroom of a bedroom.

Mr. Johnson contended that his trial counsel, Jacque Hawk, of Augusta, provided ineffective assistance by failing to present evidence of a prior violent act by Mr. Brooks in order to support his contention of self-defense.

The state's high court concluded, as did the trial court, that the decision was a matter of reasonable trial strategy and does not amount of ineffective counsel.

The Supreme Court justices also ruled against Mr. Johnson's contention that the prosecution improperly argued to the jury during closing arguments that he had suffered no injuries during the attack when Mr. Sanders knew through communication with McDuffie County Sheriff's Department Deputy Sgt. First Class Mike Hobbs that Mr. Johnson had a lump on the back of his head when he was taken to the county jail.

Mr. Hawk argued that Mr. Johnson had been beaten from one end of the house to the other and that Mr. Brooks was "beating the crap" out of Mr. Johnson and that he did not have to let "somebody beat him to a bloody pulp," records show.

In responding to that argument, the prosecutor referred to a photograph of Mr. Johnson taken at the jail on the night of his arrest. Mr. Sanders asked jurors if that looked like a person who had been beaten as badly as described.

"Accordingly, we find no merit to Johnson's contention that the prosecutor engaged in an improper argument," Justice Nahmias said.

Web posted on Thursday, March 25, 2010

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