Local News

Johnson pleads to manslaughter while jury is deliberating

SEBRING - Facing the prospect of a hung jury, Asst. State Attorney Steve Houchin offered a plea deal for first degree manslaughter with a weapon.

Johnnie B. Johnson, facing the jury that was still deliberating on his guilt Friday night or another trial with another jury later this year, accepted the deal.

Circuit Court Judge William D. Sites accepted Johnson's plea late Friday, and now it will be up to Sites to sentence the Avon Park man at 1:15 p.m. May 5.

Assistant Public Defender Robert H. Gray argued on Thursday and Friday that Johnson, now 29, was afraid of Vernon J. Walker. That's why, after Walker had beaten Johnson in a fight on July 23, 2011, Johnson had gone home, cleaned his wounds, changed into fresh clothes and armed himself with a butcher knife.

On those parts of the evidence, Gray and Houchin seemed to agree. They disagreed on whether Johnson had called out Walker that night, and on whether Walker, a larger man who Gray alleged was a bully, had called out Johnson.

That was the crux of Johnson's defense: Florida's Stand Your Ground law allows individuals to defend themselves with deadly force, and without any requirement to retreat or evade a dangerous situation.

George Zimmerman, the Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer accused of murdering Trayvon Martin in February 2012, was found not guilty last year, although he didn't use the stand your ground defense.

"Vernon Walker was a bad man," Gray said. "He beat up Johnnie Johnson. Vernon Walker was big man. Probably 6'5" and 260 pounds. He was reportedly a violent man and a street fighter."

Johnson, who sat in court Friday in a blue blazer, white shirt and white slacks, weighed 165, Gray told the three-man, three-woman jury.

"If you're not sure, that's reasonable doubt," Gray continued. "If you have a reasonable doubt, you can find the defendant not guilty. It's not the burden of Johnny B. Johnson and myself to prove it to you, the burden is entirely on the state. Mr. Johnson did what he had to do. He did what he was legally entitled to do. Return a verdict of not guilty."

"Mr. Johnson did not have to kill Mr. Walker," Houchin concluded the second half of his closing statement. "The law does not require you to find a verdict of acquittal."

After seeing the evidence and hearing the witnesses, who included Walker's aunt, Gail Y. Porter, the jury must ascertain what the true facts are, Houchin said. Did Johnson willfully engage in a fight. Did Johnson seek out Walker?

"Do they give you a window into the state of mind into the defendant? Did he do what he did because he was afraid, or did he do what he did because he was angry?"

The Avon Park Police arrest report stated that Johnson, who goes by the street names Stanka and Griffin, bumped into Walker before midnight July 23, 2011, at Hawk's Grocery in Avon Park as both were exiting the restroom. Johnson allegedly yelled, "F--- that -----, he can get it, meet me out the door." A witness, Kenya N. Small, told police Johnson also screamed, "That ----- is going to die tonight. I'm going to kill that ------------."

"Why didn't he kill Walker at first?" Houchin asked the jury. "Mr. Walker was probably not a man to be trifled with. What does the physical evidence tell you? The uncontroverted evidence tells you that Mr. Walker was stabbed with a single downward motion."

What did one witness tell the jury, Houchin reminded jurors: that Johnson called out Walker. He stood up, said he was not armed, and Johnson struck the fatal blow.

The butcher knife went though the ribs. Officers found Walker in the bathroom of Brina's Cafe on South Delaney Avenue at 3:29 a.m. July 24. The floor was covered with blood. By 4:20 a.m., he died at Florida Heartland Hospital.

Had Walker beaten Johnson for 20 or 30 minutes just hours before, Houchin asked? "Maybe it seemed like it. But that's half of a football game. Mr. Johnson would have had more than a fractured check bone. Was he hurt so bad he couldn't do all those things? Did he seek medical assistance? Did he seek assistance from law enforcement? Not at all. He armed himself and got his aunt. Mr. Walker is dead because of a knife injury caused by Johnnie Johnson."

The Stand Your Ground law didn't give Johnson the right to seek out Walker, Houchin informed the jury. "Who is the aggressor here? Who is seeking the other out? Who has armed himself?

The jury started deliberations at 4 p.m. Friday and returned three hours later to announce they could not reach a verdict.

Judge Sites asked them to return to the jury room and try again. While they were deliberating a second time, Houchin changed the plea deal he had offered before the trial: Johnson could plead to voluntary manslaughter, but the judge will decide the sentence, which could run up to 30 years.

Johnson agreed, and the judge dismissed the jury.