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Johnson v. State

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

June 7, 2017



          Knutson Law Firm, by: Gregg A. Knutson, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Brad Newman, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          LARRY D. VAUGHT, Judge

         Appellant Joshua John Johnson appeals his conviction by a Logan County jury of first-degree murder. On appeal, Johnson argues that the trial court erred by (1) admitting a blood sample and resultant lab report, (2) refusing to instruct the jury on manslaughter, and (3) refusing to exclude the victim's mother from the courtroom during the testimony of other witnesses. We disagree and affirm.

         It is undisputed that on March 19, 2014, Johnson went to his ex-wife Lora Karras's home, and when she came outside to see what he wanted, he shot her with a shotgun. When Johnson saw that Karras was still alive, he shot her again in the head, killing her. At trial, Johnson asserted the defense of mental disease or defect, presenting evidence that he suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from his military service in Iraq and Afghanistan and that he also suffered from depression and alcohol abuse.

          At the outset of the trial, Johnson's counsel asked the court to invoke Rule 615 of the Arkansas Rules of Evidence, commonly known as "the rule, " to exclude the victim's parents, Pam and Scott Boone, from the courtroom because they had both been subpoenaed to testify. The court instituted the rule but exempted the Boones as the victim's closest relatives, allowing them to remain in the courtroom to view the trial.

         A blood sample, taken from Johnson on the day of the shooting, was initially misplaced by police but was located eight days later in the police station and sent to the state crime lab for testing. Johnson filed a pretrial motion to suppress all evidence relating to the blood sample and the resulting lab result, arguing that the State could not adequately establish chain of custody and that the sample had not been refrigerated for eight days prior to testing, which made the results unreliable. The court denied the motion to suppress but cautioned the State that it would be required to lay an adequate foundation for the evidence at trial. At trial, several witnesses testified about how the sample had been obtained from Johnson, how it had been misplaced, and how it had then been found eight days later. The evidence showed that officers had removed two test kits, used one to take Johnson's blood, and then erroneously placed the used kit back on the shelf in the breathalyzer room, where unused blood-test kits are stored. Don Riddle, a forensic toxicologist employed by the state crime lab, testified that he had tested the blood sample and that it contained a blood-alcohol content of .19 percent. Riddle also testified that lack of refrigeration for eight days would have had only a miniscule effect on the blood-alcohol content of the sample, increasing it by .01 or .02 percent at most. The court then asked defense counsel if Riddle's testimony "satisfied [his] concerns for this issue, " to which defense counsel replied, "It does, Your Honor." Riddle's report was entered into evidence without objection.

         Johnson's brother, Fred Johnson, testified that he had been living with Karras, her husband, Robert Karras, and her children at the time of the shooting. Fred testified that he saw Johnson drive up to the home, get out of the car with a gun, and shoot Karras. Fred stated that Johnson looked intoxicated. Fred testified that Johnson told him to get out of the house, so Fred took the children and fled to a neighbor's home. The three children testified to the same, except that Johnson's son said that he had not seen or heard the shooting because he was in his bedroom at the time.

         Johnson's wife at the time of the shooting (they had divorced by the time of trial), Jennifer Johnson, testified that, prior to the shooting, Johnson had been drinking and they had gotten into an argument. Jennifer testified that she told Johnson she was leaving and that he helped her pack her car. Jennifer also testified that Johnson suffered from PTSD, that he had been suicidal, and that she had taken him to the hospital the prior November because she feared he would kill himself. She had also asked the police to do a welfare check on Johnson on more than one occasion because she was afraid that he would harm himself. She testified that Johnson had developed depression after his last deployment.

         Heather Chambers, an investigator with the Logan County Sheriff's Office, testified that she and other officers executed a search warrant for Johnson's home, where they discovered a 12-gauge shotgun, 56 shotgun shells, and an empty six-pack of an unspecified alcoholic beverage. Adam Craig, an associate medical examiner, testified that Karras's cause of death was homicide caused by shotgun wounds to her head, back, and left forearm. The State rested, and Johnson moved for directed verdict, which the court denied.

         As its first witness, the defense called Pam Boone. She testified that she is Karras's mother and explained Karras's marital history. She explained that Johnson and Karras's first child had been born when they were teenagers, that they were married when Karras was eighteen, and that after they divorced Karras married Thomas Capo in 2008 while Johnson was deployed. After Karras and Capo divorced, Karras discovered that Capo had sexually abused her oldest child, and Capo was ultimately convicted of an unspecified criminal offense stemming from the abuse. Karras then married Robert Karras. Boone testified that although they were still married at the time of Karras's death, the couple had not been living together. She testified that Johnson had, while home from deployment, spent the night with Boone and her husband in order to have visitation with his children.

         Dr. Jon Matthew Fabian testified that Johnson suffered from PTSD, depression, and an alcohol-abuse disorder. The State's expert witness, Dr. Mark Peacock, disagreed, opining that Johnson killed Karras due to voluntary intoxication from alcohol, which is not a cognizable defense to murder. Dr. Lacey Willet Matthews also testified for the State and agreed with Peacock's assessment.

         Three witnesses who had served with Johnson in Iraq and Afghanistan testified about certain events that Johnson had experienced, such as bombings and attacks, as well as the day-to-day stresses of their work. They also testified as to ...

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