Dark legacy of overturned convictions trails longtime prosecutor

Prosecutor John B. Johnson III heads back to his area during the hearing for Dennis Perry in Brunswick on July 13, 2020. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found that Johnson has withheld evidence in a series of cases that he was legally required to share with the defense, evidence that defendants could have used to win an acquittal. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Credit: Ryon Horne

Credit: Ryon Horne

Prosecutor John B. Johnson III heads back to his area during the hearing for Dennis Perry in Brunswick on July 13, 2020. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found that Johnson has withheld evidence in a series of cases that he was legally required to share with the defense, evidence that defendants could have used to win an acquittal. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

A coastal Georgia prosecutor who has obtained hundreds of convictions over more than 40 years once said he is “directed by God” to try cases and send criminals to prison.

But John B. Johnson III, a longtime top assistant district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, also has a dark legacy of problem cases over the years — cases in which judges later found he cheated to win. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found that Johnson withheld evidence that he was legally required to share with the defense, evidence that defendants could have used to win an acquittal.

Johnson, once named the top assistant DA in the state for his record of convictions and his tireless commitment, declined to comment.

Defense lawyers who’ve gone up against Johnson in the five-county circuit acknowledge he’s a formidable opponent.

“John has been the big dog of the field in that office,” said Brunswick attorney Newell Hamilton, who has gone up against him in three death penalty cases. “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.”

His “shenanigans” include a string of major cases in which he failed to play by the rules.

Recently, a Glynn County judge ordered a new trial for a man Johnson prosecuted in 2003 for the murders of a husband and wife at the Rising Daughter Baptist Church. In his order, the judge all but stated that Johnson sent the wrong man to prison for the rest of his life. Johnson also failed to disclose to the defense that his star witness was going to receive a big reward for her testimony. On Thursday, the judge granted a signature bond to Dennis Perry who was released from prison after 20 years.

In January, the state parole board granted clemency to an inmate Johnson convicted years ago, just hours before the man was to die by lethal injection. In that case, Johnson withheld information from the jury that could have raised questions about the credibility of the state’s star witness.

Johnson has also been at the receiving end of stinging court opinions that found prosecutorial misconduct in two other murder cases.

Both rulings said Johnson violated the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Brady v. Maryland, which said prosecutors have a constitutional obligation to turn over evidence they have collected that could be used to help exonerate the defendant on trial.

In addition to accusations that he deprived defendants of a fair trial, Johnson faced allegations in 2018 that he gave special treatment to a law enforcement officer. Johnson was accused of blocking a crime victim from testifying at a high-profile bond hearing of a Glynn County police officer who was in trouble. Bond was granted, and weeks later the officer murdered two people.

“The Brunswick Judicial Circuit has been terribly ill-served by Johnson’s brazen misconduct, yet he is astonishingly still employed,” said Brian Kammer, a Mercer University law school professor who once headed a nonprofit representing death-row inmates.

In a statement, District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who is no relation, defended her longtime chief deputy.

“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.”

She said the AJC was focusing on a few murder cases out of dozens that Johnson prosecuted with the convictions affirmed.

“John has done more for victims of violent crime and public safety than anyone in South Georgia,” she said.

‘Intentional misconduct'

One of John Johnson’s court rebukes came in a 1995 death-penalty case where 17-year-old Larry Jenkins was accused of killing the owner of a laundromat, Terry Ralston, and her 15-year-old son, Michael. Their bullet-riddled bodies were discovered face down in a ditch after they had left their Jesup home to collect coins from the machines.

Before trial, Johnson never disclosed to the defense contradictory statements from his star witness. She testified she saw Jenkins drop the murder weapon near her home. But the jury never heard that the woman initially told police that even though the person who dropped the gun looked straight at her, she didn’t recognize him.

“The Brunswick Judicial Circuit has been terribly ill-served by Johnson's brazen misconduct, yet he is astonishingly still employed."

- Brian Kammer, a Mercer University law school professor

Johnson’s team also withheld evidence that pointed to another suspect. This included a statement the alternate suspect’s girlfriend gave police implicating him in the murders — such as the fact he showed up at her house the night of the killings with blood on his jeans.

These troubling revelations were disclosed years after Jenkins’ conviction, during a hearing presided over by DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Anne Workman.

In her 2005 order, Workman found Johnson’s prosecution team “committed intentional misconduct” that undermined Jenkins’ right to a fair trial. In throwing out Jenkins’ conviction, Workman recognized the impact her ruling would have on the victims’ family.

“The court sincerely regrets the pain inflicted upon them by the failure of the system to operate correctly and lawfully,” Workman wrote. “Their outrage at the process is clearly understandable.”

Jenkins was later retried and convicted of the murders.

In 2005, a judge in DeKalb found that a prosecution team headed by John B. Johnson III (seen here at a different trial in 2013) “committed intentional misconduct” that undermined the accused's right to a fair trial. (Michael Hall / The Brunswick News)

Credit: Michael Hall

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Credit: Michael Hall

Three years after Workman’s scathing opinion, Tift County Superior Court Judge Gary McCorvey overturned murder convictions and a death sentence imposed against another man prosecuted by Johnson.

Helped at trial by then-DA Glenn Thomas, Johnson obtained a conviction against Larry Lee for the 1986 murders of Clifford and Nina Jones and their son, Jerold, in rural Wayne County.

None of the physical evidence at the crime scene matched Lee. The state’s case rested on two witnesses — a jailhouse snitch and Lee’s sister-in-law.

The snitch, David Morris, told investigators that Lee had written him a note threatening to make him a “dead rat” if he told authorities Lee had confessed. But Morris actually wrote the note, and prosecutors never disclosed he had initially lied about it.

The sister-in-law, Sherry Lee, gave wildly inconsistent statements to investigators about Lee’s involvement and began cooperating after prosecutors told her she could be eligible for a $25,000 reward. Again, none of this was disclosed by Johnson’s prosecution team.

In his 2008 ruling overturning Lee’s convictions, McCorvey said there can be no margin of error in a death-penalty case.

“Of course, counsel cannot be effective when deceived,” the judge wrote, referring to Lee’s lawyers. “The rights, which were enshrined to prevent miscarriages of justice and ensure the integrity of the fact-finding process, were all violated in this case.”

Lee’s new lawyers, arguing against a retrial, noted that prosecutors had “inexplicably lost or destroyed” crucial evidence that could have been used in his defense. This included the fingerprints and hairs recovered at the crime scene — none of which matched Lee — as well as the family room rug from which the lawyers said other forensic evidence could be collected.

In an August 1999 memo, Johnson had directed the GBI to “destroy the large piece of rug” held in storage. But in sworn testimony in 2003, when asked if he’d ever requested that the GBI destroy evidence in Lee’s case, Johnson replied, “No.”

Lee was never retried because two witnesses, including Sherry Lee, had died. In 2015, a judge found the prosecution had “squandered” the jury’s ability to properly assess the credibility of Lee’s sister-in-law.

Judge E.M. Wilkes III denied the prosecution’s request to allow a transcript of her original trial testimony to be used if the case was retried because it was “fatally and irretrievably tainted.”

“The state cannot benefit from such misconduct,” he said.

‘directed by God'

Johnson views his work prosecuting criminals as a divine calling. Before turning to the law, he had thought he was destined for the ministry.

“God gave me a gift and that gift is to be able to take a case and go to court and try it,” Johnson said during an interview for the BBC documentary “Life and Death Row.” “... I consider myself to be directed by God to this line of work and to basically do my preaching in front of 12 jurors.”

Johnson joined the Brunswick DA’s office in 1977. Almost from the start, his life in coastal Georgia was filled with the grisly aftermath of death.

On his first weekend, he said, two men attacked Fort Stewart soldier Roger Honeycutt, locked him in the trunk of a car and dumped it into a water-filled pit, drowning him.

Two weeks later, someone discovered the car. The young prosecutor went to the scene, saw Honeycutt’s body in the trunk and smelled the decomposing flesh.

Two other Fort Stewart soldiers were arrested in the slaying. Months later, in his first jury trial, Johnson prosecuted one of the soldiers. The accused killer was 17. Johnson sent him to death row.

Years later, Johnson witnessed executions of both the killer and his accomplice. Johnson said that after seeing the two put to death in the electric chair, he no longer had flashbacks to Honeycutt’s body in the trunk every time he smelled a dead animal.

Witness denied

The Ahmaud Arbery shooting earlier this year thrust the Brunswick DA’s office into the national spotlight when its former chief investigator, ex-police officer Greg McMichael, was one of three men charged in the murder of the 25-year-old jogger.

The case raised questions about whether the office was protecting an insider. It’s not the first time Jackie Johnson’s office was accused of shielding law enforcement insiders.

Two years ago, the DA found her office criticized for the release of Glynn County Lt. Robert “Cory” Sasser from custody after he’d been arrested twice in a few days’ time — once in a domestic violence case, then again for an armed standoff with his fellow officers.

John Johnson handled the hearing that allowed his release.

Investigator Joseph Hyer, whom Sasser had assaulted at the end of the SWAT standoff, wanted to testify at the bond hearing about the danger Sasser posed to his estranged wife and others.

Minutes before the hearing, Hyer said,he met privately with John Johnson to express his concerns.

“I told John Johnson emphatically if you let him out he is going to kill her,” Hyer told the AJC.

Even though Johnson told him he could speak at the hearing, Johnson never gave him that chance, Hyer said.

Johnson later told a GBI agent he did not see Hyer in the courtroom to call on him. But Hyer says the two men had walked to the courtroom together that day, and he is certain Johnson knew he was there.

“This is a situation they wanted to go away and they wanted it to go away quickly,” Hyer said.

A month later, Sasser hunted down his estranged wife, Katie, and her friend, John Hall Jr., and murdered them before committing suicide.

Hyer, no longer a Glynn County police officer, said he still has nightmares about the murders and believes that the DA’s office and Johnson bear some of the blame for them.

“I’ve been upset for two years about it,” Hyer said.

Information withheld

In January, Jimmy Meders was just hours away from execution when the state parole board granted him clemency.

Questions surrounding Johnson’s prosecution decades earlier played into the 11th-hour appeal. Meders had been sentenced to death for the armed robbery and murder of a clerk at a Jiffy store in Glynn County.

Prosecutors said that Meders killed the clerk with his .357 Magnum, but Meders steadfastly contended he did not pull the trigger. He testified that the prosecution’s star witness, Bill Arnold, killed the clerk.

Earlier that evening, Meders also said, Arnold was driving around with him and another man and had fired shots from that gun into trucks at two different locations. Arnold, who was not charged, said he never touched Meders’ handgun.

As jurors began to deliberate Meders’ fate, they sent a question to the judge: Did anyone file a police report about the earlier shootings?

Johnson told neither the judge nor the jury that people at both homes where the shots were fired had called 911 that evening. Johnson had the reports in his files but declined to disclose them, court records say.

“Obviously, from the question, it was important to the jury,” Johnson acknowledged, in testimony given years after the 1989 trial. “But the question is whether it was important to me and the answer is no.”

The Dan Wesson .357 Magnum revolver used to kill a Brunswick convenience store clerk in 1987, and which Jimmy Meders’ legal team wanted to be tested for DNA. (Glynn County Superior Court filing)

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Lawyers for Meders, who was scheduled to be executed Jan. 16, sought permission to conduct DNA tests on the handgun. If Arnold’s DNA was found, it would undercut his testimony and undermine the state’s case, Meders’ lawyers said.

At a hearing days before Meders’ scheduled execution, Johnson argued that the testing was unnecessary. A judge agreed, allowing the execution to go forward. But, with hours to spare, the state parole board commuted Meders’ sentence to life in prison without parole.

On July 17, another one of Johnson’s murder convictions was overturned. A judge ordered a new trial for Dennis Perry, who was serving a life sentence for the 1985 murders of Harold and Thelma Swain inside Rising Daughter Baptist Church.

Perry, who has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, had been behind bars for 20 years.

Lawyers for Perry won a new trial for him after noting that DNA evidence from a pair of glasses found on the church floor near the Swains’ bodies matched that of another man, Erik Sparre. He was an initial suspect in the case because his ex-wife told police he had admitted killing the couple.

Erik Sparre in a Facebook photo.

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Even though these revelations were devastating to the state’s case, Johnson argued that Perry’s conviction should stick.

In his order, Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett noted that the evidence against Perry was circumstantial and based in large part on Jane Beaver. She was the mother of a woman Perry had dated and she testified that Perry told her he was going to kill Harold Swain.

But Perry’s lawyers were never told that Beaver had asked for reward money on the day of Perry’s arrest and that prosecutors told her she could receive a reward. (Beaver was given $12,000 after Perry’s trial.)

In his ruling, Scarlett noted that during a pretrial hearing, the trial judge asked Johnson if there were any “deal, promises or inducements” with respect to any of the state’s witnesses. “There are none that we know of at this time, judge,” Johnson replied.

“If this had been disclosed, it’s likely Perry would never have been convicted,” Perry’s lawyers said in a recent statement. “Mr. Perry’s conviction was unconstitutionally obtained, in part because of prosecutor John Johnson’s failure to disclose that the state’s key witness was seeking and would be paid a substantial reward for her testimony.”

Perry was released from prison Thursday morning, while the DA’s office decides whether to retry him.

In her statement, DA Jackie Johnson said she’s awaiting the results of a new GBI investigation into the church killings. “Our office remains committed to the truth about the deaths of (Deacon) Harold Swain and Thelma Swain and holding those responsible accountable,” she said.