Murder defendant argues own appeal before justices

Under the watchful eyes of numerous law enforcement officers, a Gwinnett County murder defendant representing himself told the state's highest court Monday he's been falsely accused and wrongly denied his right to a speedy trial.

Sherwin Johnson, his hands and legs in shackles, appeared before the justices wearing

Gwinnett County murder defendant Sherwin Johnson. Source: Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department

his county-issued olive green jumpsuit. His long dreadlocks partially obscured the "Gwinnett County Jail" label on his back.

"I'm an innocent man," Johnson, standing at the lectern, told the justices. "I'm being framed for the murder of another innocent man."

Johnson spent 20 minutes pleading his case, often accusing Gwinnett law enforcement of being part of a conspiracy to set him up. None of the justices asked Johnson questions during his allotted time.

But Gwinnett Assistant District Attorney Charissa Henrich was bombarded by questions from Justice David Nahmias. He repeatedly asked if the trial judge had followed the proper procedure when he denied one of Johnson's speedy trial requests. When Henrich ultimately conceded that the judge had not done so, Johnson hit his table with a stack of documents in satisfaction.

It's not unprecedented for an incarcerated defendant to argue a case before the Georgia Supreme Court, but it's extremely rare. The last time it happened was at least a decade ago, court spokeswoman Jane Hansen estimated.

If a defendant representing himself files a proper request to personally argue the case, the court will allow it. It's then up to the jailed individual to get local law enforcement authorities to arrange the transportation and security required for the trip.

Three armed officers from the Gwinnett Sheriff's Department kept close watch on Johnson in the courtroom. Two stood on each side when Johnson made his arguments and one other sat behind him. At least five state troopers were stationed throughout the courtroom -- a highly unusual show of security for the typically sedate courtroom.

Johnson is accused of felony murder and aggravated assault for the April 2014 death of 23-year-old Kevin Pierre.

Police have said Pierre was killed during a gunfight that broke out at the Bradford Gwinnett Apartments in unincorporated Norcross. This happened during a fight between acquaintances, and police have said they do not believe Pierre was involved in the fracas. At some point, shots were fired and Pierre was hit by a stray bullet.

Police say the shots were fired from a large truck driven by Johnson's co-defendant, Quinton Hall, and that Johnson was in the truck's passenger seat at the time. Johnson also faces drug charges because police found small amounts of marijuana and cocaine on him when he was arrested and charged.

Johnson, a father of six, walked into the ornate courtroom carrying a tall stack of documents. He did not appear to be nervous for the occasion. After a Gwinnett deputy poured him a cup of water, Johnson's steady hand brought it to his lips for a sip.

Johnson was initially provided an appointed lawyer, but he later decided to represent himself. He said he repeatedly filed speedy trial demands and announced at several hearings that he was ready to stand trial.

"I'm ready to go home -- they've been holding me for nothing," Johnson told the justices. "They have no evidence on me, because I wasn't there."

Nahmias, the justice who asks the most questions during arguments, honed in on one speedy trial demand filed by Johnson on May 8, 2015. Nahmias noted that Superior Court Judge Warren Davis rejected the request the same day and did not provide findings or conclusions of law for the basis of the denial.

Henrich argued that Johnson, though his own conduct, had "belabored and beleaguered" the judicial process and slowed down the case. But Nahmias was unsatisfied with that response because it didn't address what the judge was required to do when denying the request.

"How do you salvage the May 8 order?" Nahmias asked.

When Henrich failed to give a good explanation, Johnson convulsed with excitement.

The high court is expected to issue its ruling in the coming months.

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About the Author

Bill Rankin
Bill Rankin
Bill Rankin covers criminal justice, the death penalty and legal affairs. He also hosts the AJC’s “Breakdown” podcast.