South Georgia prosecutor with decades of misconduct accusations resigns

Prosecutor John B. Johnson III during a hearing in Brunswick on July 13, 2020. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)
Prosecutor John B. Johnson III during a hearing in Brunswick on July 13, 2020. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Credit: Ryon Horne

Credit: Ryon Horne

John B. Johnson III has left his post as a top prosecutor at the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office, signaling the end to a 40-year career marked by big wins in numerous high-profile cases and persistent allegations of misconduct.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Johnson, who most recently saw a double murder conviction he obtained overturned in July 2020, resigned on Dec. 31 as Keith Higgins was set to be sworn in as the new DA. Higgins, an independent, defeated Republican DA Jackie Johnson (no relation) in the Nov. 3 election.

“Keith Higgins won the election and I retired, resigned, whatever, ended my career,” John Johnson said when reached by phone Friday. “It was time to stop being a prosecutor.”

In fact, Johnson has been hired on a contract basis to prosecute misdemeanors in Glynn County State Court a few days a month, according to Solicitor Maria Lugue. For anyone who could be concerned, she said: “I can tell you this if he or anyone else does something wrong they’ll be looking for a job.”

Higgins had previously worked under John Johnson but later criticized the DA’s office handling of some cases in which the chief assistant DA had been involved. On Friday, a spokeswoman said Higgins had no immediate comment.

Johnson, who was once named the top assistant DA in Georgia for his record of convictions and commitment, declined to comment further. He said The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had been unfair to him in stories that questioned his conduct. He refused to give specific complaints and hung up.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found in 2020 that Johnson had improperly withheld evidence he was legally required to share with the defense in multiple cases.

Jackie Johnson, who lost to Higgins in an upset after national criticism of her handling of the investigation into the death of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery, has defended for former chief assistant.

“John B. Johnson III has prosecuted hundreds of murders and violent crimes,” she said. “In recent years alone, John has tried the persons responsible for the beating death of a disabled Vietnam veteran, the rape and murder of a 6-year-old child and the mass killing of eight family members.”

John Johnson joined the DA’s office in 1977. He has said he initially considered becoming a pastor. Instead of sermons, he ended up spending his career delivering fiery closing arguments to juries across the five-county judicial circuit.

Through the years, he won hundreds of convictions.

Some came back to haunt him.

In July 2020, a judge all but said Johnson sent an innocent man to prison for 20 years. Dennis Perry had been convicted in 2003 in the deaths of Harold and Thelma Swain, a beloved couple who’d been gunned down inside their Camden County church in 1985.

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At trial, Johnson failed to tell the defense that the state’s star witness would receive a $12,000 reward for testifying that Perry told her he intended to kill Harold Swain, a deacon. Johnson sought to send Perry to death row, but after the jury found him guilty, the prosecutor said he’d settle for two life sentences if Perry would waive his rights to appeal. Perry agreed.

In late 2019, reporting by The AJC showed that the alibi of a previous suspect couldn’t be true. Erik Sparre was a suspect briefly in 1986 after allegedly bragging about killing the couple and referring to them by a racial slur. The Swains were Black; Sparre, like the killer, is white.

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After Perry’s attorneys learned of the newspaper’s findings, they conducted a DNA test that linked Sparre to the crime scene. The attorneys, from the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm, filed a motion for new trial. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation reopened the murder case and has been investigating Sparre, who maintains his innocence. There’s no indication Perry is under investigation.

Even as more people told authorities that Sparre had confessed to them, Johnson fought to keep Perry in prison, arguing that Perry shouldn’t be allowed to challenge his conviction because of the agreement he made to escape the death penalty.

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Judge Stephen Scarlett disagreed and tossed Perry’s conviction, allowing his release after 20 years behind bars.

“John has been the big dog of the field in that office,” Brunswick attorney Newell Hamilton, who has gone up against him in three death penalty cases, said last year. “He’s extremely effective in a courtroom. … But nobody really had any control over him. I don’t know how he was allowed to stay and keep up with his shenanigans.”

On top of allegations he deprived defendants of a fair trial, Johnson faced accusations in 2018 that he gave special treatment to a Glynn County police officer. Lt. Robert “Cory” Sasser was arrested twice in 2018, for a domestic violence case and engaging in an armed standoff with his fellow officers.

Johnson didn’t allow an officer who’d been assaulted by Sasser to testify at a bond hearing that Sasser posed a danger to his estranged wife and others. Sasser was released on bond. A month later he murdered his wife, Katie, and her friend, John Hall Jr., before committing suicide.

Johnson later told the GBI he didn’t call the officer to testify because he didn’t see him in the courtroom.

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