Johnson v. Steele

Decision Date28 February 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 4:13CV00278 HEA
PartiesJOHNNY A. JOHNSON, Petitioner, v. TROY STEELE, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Missouri

This matter is before the Court on the petition of Johnny A. Johnson for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. This is a capital case. For the reasons set forth below, the petition is denied.

Factual Background

The following statement of the facts giving rise to petitioner's trial and conviction are taken from the Missouri Supreme Court in State v. Johnson, 207 S.W. 3d 24 (Mo. 2006) affirming his convictions for first-degree murder and a recommended sentence of death. The jury also convicted him of armed criminal action, kidnapping, and attempted forcible rape and recommended life sentences for these crimes.

Johnson's convictions resulted from the murder of six-year old Casey Williamson on July 26, 2002. Casey lived with her mother, Angie, and her siblings at her grandfather's home on Benton Street in Valley Park. Casey's parents were separated and her father, Ernie, lived across the street, in the home of Michelle Rehm and her boyfriend Eddy, so that he could remain close to his children.

Two days before Casey's murder, on July 24, 2002, Johnson went to Michelle's house to look for Eddy and Ernie. That same day, he was seen by Casey's sister, Chelsea, and her friend, Angel, when they were riding bikes on Benton Street. Chelsea and her friend noticed that Johnson was following them and sped up as they returned home.

On the night of July 24, 2002, Angie took the children to Michelle's house to spend the night with Ernie. Johnson also stayed at Michelle's house that evening. The next morning, July 25, 2002, Angie awoke to find Casey on the couch watching cartoons with Johnson. Johnson told Angie that Casey was not bothering him. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, however, Johnson had begun to think Casey was "cute" and had "ideas" of wanting to have sex with her.

That day, Angie took the children back to her grandfather's house for the day. At one point during the day, Casey, her sister, and other friends, including Angel, were at the home by themselves. Angel noticed Johnson sitting on a chair by the deck and locked the door. Angel later heard knocking but did not answer the door.

On the evening of July 25, 2002, Johnson joined in a barbeque at Michelle's house. That evening, Casey and her siblings again spent the night with their father at Michelle's house.

The next morning, July 26, 2002, Ernie awoke around 6:00 a.m. to prepare for work. Casey awoke and said she was hungry. Ernie told her that he would take her to her grandfather's house to get breakfast and told her to wait upstairs while he went downstairs to get ready for work. Downstairs, he noticed Johnson asleep on the couch.

Casey did not stay upstairs. Johnson awoke to find Casey standing near the couch watching television and sensed this was his best opportunity to have sex her. He had decided that to avoid being caught for sexually assaulting her, he would kill her after having sex with her. Johnson asked Casey if she wanted to go to the glass factory to play games and have fun. Casey said she would go with him and they left. Casey was wearing only her night-gown and underwear. As they walked down Benton Street and into an alley, Casey complained her feet hurt and Johnson picked her up and carried her. When they came to the woods leading to the glass factory, they walked along one of the paths to a sunken pit with brick and concrete walls more than 6 feet high. Casey and Johnson crawled through a small tunnel and dropped into the pit.

The glass factory, a popular hangout for neighborhood kids, refers to an abandoned factory surrounded by wooded areas and a series of trails. Johnson asked Casey if she wanted to see his penis. She said no, but he pulled down his shorts and exposed himself. Casey turned her head away. Johnson then asked Casey to pull down her panties so he could see her vagina. She said no, and Johnson grabbed her underwear, tore it off her, and forced her to the ground. Pinning her to the ground with his chest, Johnson attempted to achieve an erection by rubbing his penis on Casey's leg. Casey started screaming, kicking, and pushing at Johnson, scratching his chest.

Even though he had not yet raped Casey, Johnson got up and decided to kill her. He grabbed a brick and hit Casey in the head with it at least six times, causing bleeding and bruising. She was not yet dead or knocked unconscious and started to run around the pit. Johnson hit her with the brick again. She fell to her knees and tried to crawl away from Johnson. He struck her with the brick again, eventually knocking her to the ground and fracturing the right side of her skull. Because she was still moving, Johnson then lifted a basketball-sized boulder and brought it down on the back, left side of Casey's head and neck, causing multiple skull fractures. Casey inhaled and exhaled "really fast" and then stopped breathing.

Johnson wiped blood from Casey's face with her underpants and then threw them in an opening in the wall. He buried Casey with rocks, leaves, and debris from the pit. He then went to the nearby Meramec River to wash Casey's blood and other evidence from his body.

The police were looking for Johnson. Officer Chad Lewis met up with him. He had Johnson get in a police car to talk because there were so many people in the area. Without any question being asked, Johnson said he would not hurt "little kids" and that he liked them because he had one of his own. He explained to Officer Louis that he had gone for a swim in the river and explained his route there. Officer Louis thought Johnson's route was unusual because most locals would have cut through the glass factory to get to the river. He asked Johnson if he had been in the glass factory, which Johnson denied. At Officer Louis's request, Johnson agreed to go to the police station to talk in private.

While at the station, Johnson was identified by a witness who had seen him carrying Casey that morning. Around 8:30 a.m., Detectives Neske and Knieb arrived at the station and took Johnson to a police substation that had an open interview room. On the ride to the substation, Johnson was informed of his rights and indicated he understood them. At the substation, around 9:25 a.m., Johnson signed a waiver form after again being advised of his rights. Johnson said he wanted to make a statement. For about an hour, Johnson and Detective Neske conversed, and Johnson denied seeing or being with Casey that morning. Even when confronted with accounts of witnesses seeing him with Casey that morning, Johnson continued his denials.

When Detective Neske brought up a hypothetical about Johnson's son being missing, Johnson became angry. Johnson said he was being treated for schizophrenia and had been hospitalized for it in the past. Johnson denied that he was hearing voices and said he usually only saw shadows, but he denied having any hallucinations at that time. Johnson said he had not taken any medication for a month and was not suffering from it anymore.

The detectives took a break from talking with Johnson and brought him food. In the early afternoon, about 1:30 p.m., Johnson agreed to submit to a rape kit. Before the samples were collected, Detective Neske told Johnson that they would determine his involvement and said he needed "to be a man and tell me where she's at." Johnson started crying and said, "She's in the old glass factory."

When asked if Casey was alive, Johnson said she was dead and it was an accident. He said that Casey wanted to go to the glass factory with him and that a rock had fallen from the pit wall when he was climbing it and hit Casey's head, killing her. Johnson said he then "freaked out," thinking he would not be believed, and buried Casey. He said he went to the river to kill himself but could not. Johnson drew two maps to help officers find Casey's body, but officers at the scene were unable to find the body and Johnson was taken there.

Before Johnson arrived, however, a private citizen who had joined the search for Casey that morning came upon the tunnel leading to the pit where Johnson had taken Casey. In the middle of the pit, he saw a pile of rocks, blood around the pile, and Casey's foot between the rocks. He saw "a piece of concrete that probably weighed a hundred pounds" where Casey's head would have been. Police arrived and secured the pit.

Johnson was taken to police headquarters. Detective Neske observed the pit and spoke with an officer who was processing evidence at the scene. The evidence officer told Detective Neske that there was no place to climb out of the pit and said there was blood all over the floor of the pit, which contradicted Johnson's story.

Detective Neske went to police headquarters to talk with Johnson. He again advised Johnson of his rights and the waivers and said he had been to the scene and did not think it was an accident. Johnson then told Detective Neske that once he and Casey were in the pit, he had asked Casey if she wanted to see his penis and pulled down his pants. Johnson said that he asked Casey to show him her vagina and pulled off her underwear, which caused her to start "freaking out" and saying she would tell her parents. Johnson said this caused him to start "freaking out" as well, and he picked up the brick and hit her a couple of times in the head, then dropped the "boulder" on her head. He said he wanted her to expose herself so he could masturbate. He said he wiped blood from Casey's face with the underwear, discarded it, buried the body, and went to the river to wash off the blood. Around 8:30 p.m., Johnson repeated this version of events in an audiotaped statement. In these statements, Johnson did not admit that he intended to take Casey, rape her, or kill her prior to entering the pit.

Later that night, around 11:30 p.m.,...

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