People v. Johnson, Docket No. 107224, Calendar No. 1.

Citation460 Mich. 720,597 N.W.2d 73
Decision Date20 July 1999
Docket NumberDocket No. 107224, Calendar No. 1.
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Jermell Darnell JOHNSON, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtSupreme Court of Michigan

Jennifer M. Granholm, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, David L. Morse, Prosecuting Attorney, and Daniel J. Garber, Jr., Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Howell, for the people.

Carolyn A. Blanchard, Northville, for defendant-appellant.



The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The Court of Appeals affirmed. We granted leave to appeal to decide whether the circuit court erred when it denied the defendant's motion for directed verdict. Like the Court of Appeals, we affirm.


About 7:00 p.m. on an April evening in 1993, a social worker named Barbara Synnestvedt was murdered in the staff lounge at the Green Oak Center, part of the W.J. Maxey Training School in southern Livingston County.

The victim had been strangled by hand. Abrasions on her body suggested that a struggle had taken place. Her belt had been removed and lay near her. Her trousers had been pulled up taut in front, and were down somewhat in back.

Almost immediately, suspicion fell on defendant Jermel D. Johnson, a resident of Green Oak. He was seen in the vicinity of the lounge about the time of the killing, and had been asking about the victim earlier in the day.

The prosecuting attorney brought an open charge of murder against the defendant. M.C.L. § 750.316; M.S.A. § 28.548. At the close of the prosecutor's proofs, defense counsel moved unsuccessfully for a directed verdict. The defendant then testified, denying that he had committed the murder. However, the jury found him guilty as charged.

After the Court of Appeals affirmed,1 this Court granted leave to appeal, "limited to the question whether the trial court erred in denying the defendant's motion for a directed verdict."2


In People v. Wolfe, 440 Mich. 508, 513-516, 489 N.W.2d 748 (1992),3 we reviewed the standard for deciding an issue of this sort:

In determining whether the prosecution has presented sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction, an appellate court is required to apply the standard adopted by this Court in People v. Hampton, 407 Mich. 354, 366, 285 N.W.2d 284 (1979), cert den 449 U.S. 885, 101 S.Ct. 239, 66 L.Ed.2d 110 (1980). There, we stated that a reviewing court "must consider not whether there was any evidence to support the conviction but whether there was sufficient evidence to justify a rational trier of fact in finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
This standard was articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), and has been applied regularly in the courts of this state. See Hampton, supra, 407 Mich. [at] 366; People v. Petrella, 424 Mich. 221, 268, 380 N.W.2d 11 (1985); People v. Lewis, 178 Mich.App. 464, 468, 444 N.W.2d 194 (1989). The sufficient evidence requirement is a part of every criminal defendant's due process rights. It is an attempt to give "concrete substance" to those rights, by precluding irrational jury verdicts. Jackson, supra, 443 U.S. [at] 315. [440 Mich. at 513-514, 489 N.W.2d 748.]

Observing that "when an appellate court reviews the evidence supporting a conviction, factual conflicts are to be viewed in a light favorable to the prosecution," 440 Mich. at 515, 489 N.W.2d 748, we concluded:

In short, when determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to sustain a conviction, a court must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution and determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Hampton, supra, 407 Mich. [at] 368; Petrella, supra, 424 Mich. [at] 268. [440 Mich. at 515-516, 489 N.W.2d 748.]

The first of several staff members who testified was the person in charge of the Green Oak Center on April 25, 1993. He explained that Ms. Synnestvedt was a social worker assigned to E Wing,4 and that the defendant lived on D Wing. When Ms. Synnestvedt had not checked out by 8:00 p.m., the staff member began to look for her. He and a fellow employee went to the staff lounge, where the other employee had last seen her. There, they found her body against a wall. There was "quite a bit" of blood on the walls and on a nearby copy machine.

The staff member had seen the defendant about 8:00 p.m., then saw him again shortly after the body was found. He told the defendant to go back to his housing wing. He did not notice anything unusual about the defendant's appearance or behavior.

A second staff member testified that she saw the victim working in the lounge at about 7:10 or 7:15 p.m. Another testified that he walked past the staff lounge about 7:00 p.m. and saw a purse on a table in the lounge. The lights were out. The same was true several moments later, when he looked again. He checked the door of the lounge, and found it to be locked.

Another Green Oak employee testified that he supervised the kitchen detail, which included the defendant.5 The workers were throwing out trash and moving supplies in the loading area. At one point, Ms. Synnestvedt came into that area and said "Hi." She left about 6:40 p.m. This employee and the detail went back to the kitchen and got snacks. The defendant then left with two other residents.

A Green Oak employee who worked on the defendant's wing testified that the defendant returned from the kitchen detail between 7:00 and 7:15 p.m. Later that evening, he noticed that the defendant had some scratches on his right arm. The defendant said that he got them when taking the garbage out. The defendant left to do another detail assignment at about 7:40 p.m.

After the Green Oak staff members testified, a forensic pathologist opined that the victim had died of manual strangulation.

Several residents of Green Oak testified, in addition to the defendant. The first said that he worked on detail with the defendant that day. They left the kitchen area about 6:50 p.m., and he saw the defendant coming down the stairs near the gym on his way back to his wing.

A second resident testified that, at about 4:30 p.m., the defendant asked him if he had seen Ms. Synnestvedt. This resident and five to seven others played basketball in the gym from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m.

The detail assignment of a third resident was buffing floors. He saw the defendant about 6:00 p.m. in the administrative area. The defendant asked which hallway he intended to buff first. This resident thought the lights in the staff lounge were on; he did not see Ms. Synnestvedt.

A fourth resident testified that he lived on the same wing as the defendant. He related that the defendant came to the door of the classroom where the wing's residents were watching television at 7:35 or 7:40 p.m. The defendant said that he was going to take a shower, a staff member approved the request, and the defendant left. A very short time later, this witness saw the defendant sweating "[a] whole lot." The defendant then told staff that he had to clean another area, and left. The defendant came back and obtained some bleach from the staff. The defendant had a red mark or a small cut on the side of his face.

Other residents also testified. One said that he went by the staff lounge at 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. The light was on then, but at 7:00 p.m. it was off. Another testified that he went past the staff lounge three times that evening. He saw the victim sitting and writing in the staff lounge with the light on the first two times. The light was off and he did not see her the last time.

Still another resident (who also lived in the same wing as the defendant) went from his wing upstairs to G Wing to buy candy for a staff member at about 6:35 or 6:40 p.m. He had to go up and down the stairs twice in a matter of minutes. On his second trip back to his wing, he saw the defendant walking quickly away from the gym area. The defendant was wearing a red shirt, a white apron, and black pants. The defendant told him that he was coming from the gym. The defendant had blood below his left eye.

The defendant told this witness not to go in the direction the witness was headed, because the floors were being buffed. This statement may have been an attempt to steer the witness away from the area where the crime was committed. The defendant also asked the witness whether the latter would take Kool-Aid back to the wing for him. The witness said that he would. They went to the kitchen, and the defendant got the Kool-Aid. The defendant disappeared for a few seconds. When he came back with the Kool-Aid, he was not wearing the apron. However, he was wearing disposable gloves. The witness went back downstairs toward his wing, and the defendant asked him whether the staff member in charge of Green Oak was there. The witness got back to his wing at about 7:00 p.m. There also were police witnesses, including three detectives. One detective testified that he interviewed the defendant later that night after being called to the scene. He observed scratches on both the defendant's arms. He identified a plastic bag found in the kitchen area that contained an apron and some paper towels, which smelled of bleach.

The detective had been told by one resident that he went by the staff lounge at 7:10 p.m. At that time, the lights were on, the door was locked, and he did not see the victim. Another resident told the detective that the defendant had appeared on his wing and asked whether he could take a shower at 7:20 p.m.

A second detective testified that two palm prints found atop a cabinet in the room where the victim was found matched the defendant's palm prints. Two other palm prints were found on the front of the cabinet in the same room, and these matched defendant's prints. The palm...

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