Johnson v. State

Decision Date31 January 1992
Docket NumberCR-90-109
Citation620 So.2d 679
PartiesRickey Lee JOHNSON v. STATE.
CourtAlabama Court of Criminal Appeals

Kevin M. Doyle and Bryan A. Stevenson, Montgomery, and Connie Parson, Birmingham, for appellant.

James H. Evans, Atty. Gen., and Melissa G. Math and Sandra J. Stewart, Asst. Attys. Gen., for appellee.

MONTIEL, Judge. 1

Rickey Lee Johnson was indicted for capital murder, in violation of § 13A-5-40(a)(2), Code of Alabama 1975. He was found guilty as charged in the indictment and was sentenced to death.

The State's first witness during the guilt-phase of the trial was Ricky Lewis. He testified that he knew Ruby Brown and Emma Whitehead and that he was familiar with the neighborhood in which they lived. He testified that their house was next to a vacant house where he and some other men went to visit with each other and to drink. He went to the vacant house during the daytime on June 8, 1988. He testified that he was later joined by his uncle, Alvin Lewis. He further testified that he fell asleep. He woke up when he heard "popping" noises that sounded like something was burning. (R. 212.) He looked out the window, but did not see anything. He looked again when he heard someone close the door at Brown's house. He saw that the house was on fire and saw a man with his hair styled in a "jheri curl" walk off Brown's porch. The man walked toward a nearby transmission shop. Lewis testified that he ran over to the house. He and his uncle were unable to get into the house because of the fire.

The record reveals that Ruby Brown lived in Birmingham with her 70-year-old cousin, Emma Whitehead. Brown testified that on June 8, 1988, she left their home at 6:30 a.m. to go to work. She arrived home from work at approximately 3:45 p.m. She testified that the door was cracked. When she walked into the house she saw a man, later identified as the appellant, standing behind the door holding an electric clothes iron. After she entered, he shut the door and hit her in the face with the iron. She testified that she then lost her balance and fell. He hit her again after she got up. She looked at his face and asked him what he wanted. He said he that he wanted money. He then hit her with a crystal candy dish. Brown identified the appellant as the man who had hit her. She testified that she saw his face when she came in the door and that she also saw his face before he hit her with the candy dish.

Brown testified that the appellant left the room she was in and went to a back room in the house. She ran out of the house. The appellant chased her. He grabbed her hair and dragged her back into the house. He locked the door and hit her on the head with a lamp. The appellant then knocked her to the floor and would not let her get up. He said that he wanted money. Brown watched the appellant as he looked through her purse. The appellant took approximately $78 from her purse. Brown testified that as the appellant was going through her purse, he threatened to kill her. He also demanded to know where her housemate (Emma Whitehead) kept her money. Brown testified that she asked the appellant about her cousin and called out her name three or four times. Whitehead did not respond. The appellant told her to save her energy because her cousin was going to need her.

Brown testified that she pretended to lose consciousness and that the appellant then went to a back room. She realized that the appellant had set the house on fire. She escaped out the front door and sought assistance at a local business.

Brown further testified that she observed the appellant's face in well-lighted conditions several times during the ordeal. She stated that she was able to see his face when he was holding the iron and again before he hit her with the candy dish. She also saw his face when he dragged her back into the house after her initial attempt to escape. She also saw his face when he hit her with the lamp. She testified that Whitehead was alive when Brown left for work that morning. She further testified that she had met the appellant at his aunt's house sometime prior to the murder.

On cross-examination, Brown testified that she met the appellant at his aunt's house sometime in 1988 after his uncle's death. She stated that at that time, his face was clean-shaven and his hair was styled in a jheri curl. She further testified that on the day of the murder, the appellant's hair was styled in a jheri curl. She denied telling Sergeant Randy Boissel that the appellant's hair was not styled in a jheri curl or was in an afro. She identified defendant's Exhibit No. 1 as the police artist's composite drawing of the assailant and stated that the drawing showed the appellant's hair in a jheri curl.

Ronnie Howard testified that he was employed by Tranco Transmission, a business located approximately one-half block from Brown's house. He testified that he was working on June 8, 1988. He saw Ruby Brown coming home from work at approximately 3:00 p.m. He testified that he saw her again later that afternoon, after she had been attacked. He testified that Brown told him that "he" had tried to kill her and that Whitehead was still in the house. (R. 312.) He testified that Brown's house was on fire.

Charles Smith, who was working at Jordan Scrap on June 8, testified that he knew Ruby Brown because her house was located behind the scrap yard. He was getting ready to close when he saw that Brown's house was on fire. He testified that he ran to the house and opened the front storm door. He closed the door when fire and smoke came out of the house. The back door was locked. He testified that the fire occurred on a Wednesday. He further testified that the appellant came to the scrap yard on the following Friday and asked Smith if he knew him or had ever seen him. Smith answered in the negative. The appellant then asked to see Mr. Jordan and asked Jordan if he knew him. When Jordan said that he had never seen the appellant before, the appellant showed Jordan his driver's license.

On cross-examination, Smith testified that earlier in the afternoon on June 8 Alvin Lewis, a man named Chip, and another black male came to the front gate and asked about a job. He testified that he did not think the appellant was the third man.

Charles McPhate, a patrol officer with the Birmingham Police Department, testified that he responded to the call regarding the fire at Ruby Brown's house. He received the call at approximately 4:45 p.m. He rendered aid to Brown and secured the scene. He then turned the scene over to Officer Fred Hedgepeth, an evidence technician. He testified that he spoke to several people at the scene. He testified that the appellant's cousin, Linda Watkins, indicated that the appellant might be the perpetrator.

Officer Hedgepeth, testified that he arrived at the scene at approximately 5:20 p.m. and that the scene had been secured. He went through the back door and saw Emma Whitehead's body on the kitchen floor. Hedgepeth collected numerous items of evidence from the scene, including the rear storm door handle, the door threshold, stain samples he believed to be blood, a hammer, and fingerprints.

Jefferson County Coroner Dr. Robert Brissie performed an autopsy on Emma Whitehead. He testified that the deceased had inhaled an appreciable amount of dense smoke. He testified that she had died as a result of extensive blunt force trauma with smoke inhalation secondary to a beating. (R. 434.) He testified that had she suffered at least 16 blows to the head area and at least seven blows to other parts of the body. He testified that most of her scalp was bruised and that there were several depressed skull fractures. He testified that the head wounds had bled extensively.

A Birmingham fire inspector, O.J. Hill, testified that he had examined the scene to determine the cause of the fire. He discovered that a fire had been set in the front bedroom and that another fire had been set in the middle bedroom. He further testified that he had eliminated any accidental cause for the fire. He also testified that he could not find any reason to believe that the fires had been caused by electrical problems. He further testified that the fires had not been caused by the heating or air conditioning systems or by any appliances. He also eliminated natural gas or an act of God as the cause of the fires. He testified that he had found debris burning under the bed in the front bedroom.

Debra Carter testified that the appellant came to her apartment on the evening of June 8. He asked whether her husband was home, drank a glass of water, and left. She testified that he was wearing a white tee shirt and jogging pants. His hair was styled in a jheri curl. She testified that he seemed nervous. She further testified that he appeared to have blood on his fingers.

The appellant's cousin, Linda Watkins, testified that the appellant came to her apartment at dusk on June 8. She talked to him in the parking lot. He was wearing sweatpants and a red tee shirt. She testified that the appellant became upset and ran off after she told him that the police were looking for him. She further testified that she saw the appellant at her apartment several times over the next few days. She stated that he had his hair styled in a jheri curl.

Greg Bearden, a Birmingham Police Department evidence technician, testified that he and Officer Jimmy Brown went to the scene on June 9. He collected a hammer in the front yard, a storm door, and the rear storm door. All of the evidence was transported to the Department of Forensic Sciences.

Birmingham Police Officer Steve Cain testified that on June 12, 1988, he saw a man later identified as the appellant. The appellant was walking near the railroad tracks on 43rd Street. Cain testified that he noted that the appellant matched a photograph and a description given by his family. He stopped the appellant and asked him his name. The...

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