Johnson v. Commonwealth

Decision Date21 April 2000
Docket NumberRecord No. 992526.,Record No. 992525
Citation259 Va. 654,529 S.E.2d 769
PartiesShermaine A. JOHNSON v. COMMONWEALTH of Virginia.
CourtVirginia Supreme Court

Andrea C. Long (Boone, Beale, Cosby & Long, on brief), Richmond, for appellant.

Katherine P. Baldwin, Assistant Attorney General (Mark L. Earley, Attorney General on brief), for appellee.


KEENAN, Justice.

In these appeals, we review the capital murder conviction and death sentence imposed on Shermaine A. Johnson, along with his conviction for rape.


On January 6, 1997, petitions were issued in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court of the City of Petersburg (juvenile court) against Johnson, charging him with the July 11, 1994 rape and capital murder of Hope Denise Hall. Johnson was 16 years old at the time these offenses were committed. Notice of the juvenile court proceedings was provided to Johnson's guardian and grandmother, Virginia Dancy. After a hearing, the juvenile court found probable cause to believe that Johnson had committed the crimes alleged and entered an order certifying the charges to the grand jury.

On April 17, 1997, the grand jury of the Circuit Court of the City of Petersburg (the circuit court) indicted Johnson on charges of capital murder in the commission of rape or attempted rape in violation of Code § 18.2-31(5), and rape in violation of Code § 18.2-61. Johnson filed numerous pretrial motions and requests for continuances during the ensuing 14 months. On June 17, 1998, Johnson filed a motion to dismiss the indictments, arguing that the circuit court had not complied with the requirements of former Code § 16.1-296(B). This statute required the circuit court, within a "reasonable time" after receiving the case from the juvenile court, to review the records and enter an order either remanding the case to the juvenile court or advising the Commonwealth's Attorney that he may seek indictments.

The circuit court entered an order dated June 29, 1998, stating that it had reviewed Johnson's records from the juvenile court and, upon that review, authorized the Commonwealth's Attorney to seek indictments. The grand jury returned new indictments on July 2, 1998, and the circuit court later granted the Commonwealth's motion to enter a nolle prosequi on the original indictments. The circuit court also entered an order stating that "[a]ll papers, documents, orders, motions, responses, letters, and arguments" contained in the court files of the original indictments were "transferred and incorporated" in the files of the new indictments.

In the first stage of a bifurcated jury trial conducted under Code § 19.2-264.3, the jury convicted Johnson of the offenses charged in the new indictments. In the penalty phase of the trial, the jury fixed his punishment for capital murder at death, based on findings of both "future dangerousness" and "vileness."

In a post-trial motion, Johnson sought dismissal of the indictments on the ground that the Commonwealth had failed to provide notice of the transfer proceedings in juvenile court to Johnson's father, in violation of former Code §§ 16.1-263 and -264. The trial court denied the motion, finding that "proper notice as contemplated by the statute" had been given. After considering the pre-sentence report and victim impact statements, the trial court sentenced Johnson to life imprisonment on the rape charge and, in accordance with the jury verdict, to death on the capital murder charge.

We consolidated the automatic review of Johnson's death sentence with his appeal of the capital murder conviction. Code § 17.1-313(F). We also certified Johnson's appeal of his rape conviction from the Court of Appeals and consolidated that appeal with his capital murder appeal. Code § 17.1-409.


We will state the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the prevailing party below. Walker v. Commonwealth, 258 Va. 54, 60, 515 S.E.2d 565, 568 (1999), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 120 S.Ct. 955, 145 L.Ed.2d 829 (2000); Jackson v. Commonwealth, 255 Va. 625, 632, 499 S.E.2d 538, 543 (1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1067, 119 S.Ct. 796, 142 L.Ed.2d 658 (1999); Roach v. Commonwealth, 251 Va. 324, 329, 468 S.E.2d 98, 101, cert. denied, 519 U.S. 951, 117 S.Ct. 365, 136 L.Ed.2d 256, (1996). On July 11, 1994, the nude body of 22-year-old Hope Denise Hall was found on the bedroom floor of her apartment in Petersburg. She had been stabbed 15 times, including fatal stab wounds to her back, chest, and neck.

Hall's body had abrasions on the nose and left cheek. The body also had a broken, ragged fingernail that Dr. Deborah Kay, an assistant chief medical examiner for the Commonwealth, testified was a "defense-type" injury. Dr. Kay also testified that death "is not generally immediate" with wounds such as those suffered by Hall, and that she initially would have remained conscious after the wounds were inflicted.

The police found blood on two "steak" knives, which were lying on a counter in Hall's kitchen. Blood was also found on a piece of a broken drinking glass located on the kitchen counter, and there was additional blood on the kitchen counter and floor. The police recovered from the kitchen floor an earring, five strands of hair, and a partial shoe print containing some blood. The matching earring was found in Hall's bedroom.

The outside door to Hall's apartment was locked, and the police found a partial fingerprint and smears of blood on the inside panel of that door, which was located near the kitchen. The police recovered two additional "steak" knives, one on Hall's bed and one in her bathroom. The telephone wires in her bedroom had been pulled out of the wall.

A smear of blood and blood splatters were located on the bedroom wall near the victim's body. The police found additional blood on the bedroom floor, dresser, sheets, and bedspread. There was no sign of forced entry into the apartment.

DNA Evidence

Jean M. Hamilton, a forensic scientist employed by the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, testified that she performed DNA testing using the "polymerase chain reaction," or PCR, technique on evidence recovered from the crime scene and a blood sample and vaginal swabs collected from Hall's body during an autopsy. Hamilton concluded that the DNA from the blood found on the knife on the bed, the knives in the kitchen, the kitchen countertop, and the front door all matched the DNA from Hall's blood sample.

Hamilton determined that the DNA from Hall's blood did not match the DNA from the blood on the handle of the knife found in the bathroom. However, the blood from the broken glass in the kitchen and one bloodstain on the bedspread contained a mixture of Hall's DNA and DNA from the same person whose blood was on the handle of the knife found in the bathroom.

Hamilton testified that DNA from sperm detected in two semen stains on the sheets and DNA from another stain on the bedspread came from the same person as the DNA from the blood on the bathroom knife. However, the DNA from the sperm detected in the vaginal swab taken from Hall's body came from more than one person.

Early in the investigation, an acquaintance of Hall, Leroy Quick, III, who had been observed knocking on the door of Hall's apartment on the night of the murder, was suspected of committing these crimes. Hamilton analyzed the DNA from a sample of Quick's blood. Based on her analysis, Hamilton eliminated Quick as a possible source of the DNA found on all the evidence she had analyzed.

Hamilton then performed a more discriminating type of DNA analysis, known as "restriction fragment length polymorphism" or RFLP testing, on the DNA from two semen stains found on the sheet and the bedspread. After obtaining the DNA profile from those two stains, Hamilton searched the DNA data bank maintained by the Division of Forensic Science to determine if the DNA profile obtained from the crime scene evidence matched any DNA profile on record in the DNA data bank. Hamilton did not find a matching DNA profile at the time of her initial search in March 1996, at which time there were about 5,000 samples in the DNA data bank.

In August 1996, Hamilton performed a second search of the DNA data bank after about 2,500 more samples had been added to the bank. Hamilton's second search revealed that one DNA profile contained in the data bank was consistent with the DNA profile that she had obtained from the crime scene evidence. This matching DNA profile belonged to the defendant, Shermaine A. Johnson, who was incarcerated in the Southampton Correctional Institute.

Hamilton performed DNA testing, using the PCR technique, on another sample of Johnson's blood that was in the custody of the City of Franklin Police Department. Hamilton concluded that the DNA profile of Johnson, who is an African-American, matched the DNA found on the handle of the knife retrieved from the bathroom, some of the semen stains on the sheets, the semen stain on the bedspread, and some of the sperm in the vaginal swab. Based on the results of this PCR test, Hamilton estimated that this particular DNA profile would occur in about one out of 980 people in the Black population, or about one-tenth of 1% of that population.

Sergeant Thomas Patrick of the Petersburg Bureau of Police obtained a search warrant, which he executed on Johnson at the Southampton Correctional Institute. Pursuant to the search warrant, Patrick obtained another blood sample from Johnson, as well as head and pubic hair samples. George Li, a supervising forensic scientist with the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, conducted RFLP testing on DNA from the blood sample obtained from Johnson and compared it to the DNA found at the crime scene. Li concluded that Johnson's DNA matched the DNA from semen stains on the sheet and bedspread. Li estimated that the...

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