State v. Johnson, 124A85

Citation344 S.E.2d 775,317 N.C. 193
Decision Date02 July 1986
Docket NumberNo. 124A85,124A85
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Richard Lewis JOHNSON.

Lacy H. Thornburg, Atty. Gen. by David Roy Blackwell, Asst. Atty. Gen., Raleigh, for the State.

Malcolm Ray Hunter, Jr., Appellate Defender by Gordon Widenhouse, Asst. Appellate Defender, Raleigh, for defendant-appellant.

MEYER, Justice.

The State's evidence tended to show that the defendant and his wife, Brenda Johnson, separated in March 1984, and the defendant retained custody of the two children born of the marriage. The separation was less than amicable. At one point, the defendant and Mrs. Johnson engaged in a heated confrontation concerning Mrs. Johnson's access to the children. On that occasion, the defendant asked Mrs. Johnson if she "remembered Jim Ward and what he done to his family." Mrs. Johnson testified that, approximately ten years earlier, Ward had killed his children and then committed suicide. Mrs. Johnson stated that the defendant threatened to do the same thing.

In June 1984, the defendant lived in Hot Springs, North Carolina, with his eleven-year-old son, Christopher, and his five-year-old daughter, Joyce. In early June 1984, Christopher Johnson was brought to Asheville Memorial Mission Hospital. At the time of the admission, Christopher was sweating profusely, his pupils were pinpointed, his chest muscles were fluctuating violently, and his speech was slurred. He was diagnosed as suffering from organophosphate poisoning. An antidote was administered, and Christopher soon began to recover. He was released the following day.

On 15 June, Joyce Johnson was brought to Asheville Memorial Mission Hospital suffering from nausea, abdominal pain, headaches, and pain during urination. She was diagnosed as suffering from a urinary tract infection, and the doctor prescribed an antibiotic which was described as a sweet-odored, dark-orange liquid.

On the morning of 17 June 1984, the defendant told Christopher to look after Joyce while he went into town. The defendant then gave Joyce a teaspoon of white liquid. Christopher testified at trial that the liquid which the defendant administered to Joyce had an odor similar to bug poison. The defendant then proceeded to town. A few minutes after the defendant's departure, Joyce became very ill. White foam was coming from her mouth, her stomach was growling, she was staggering, and her conversation made no sense at all. Christopher stated that Joyce eventually laid down on the bed and stopped moving.

Meanwhile, the defendant went to the cafe in Hot Springs and ate breakfast. As he was leaving, he approached a local emergency medical technician (E.M.T.) who was also in the cafe. The defendant asked the E.M.T. where the town ambulance was located. The E.M.T. responded that the ambulance was in the garage next to the ambulance hut in order to be painted. The E.M.T. then inquired as to why the defendant was concerned about the whereabouts of the ambulance. The defendant simply responded, "I might need it later." The defendant then left the cafe.

Upon his return home, the defendant was made aware of Joyce's illness. He immediately took her to the ambulance hut in Hot Springs. The E.M.T.s placed Joyce in the ambulance and proceeded to Asheville. The defendant and Christopher followed in a pick-up truck. Near the Madison County-Buncombe County line, Joyce was transferred to a Buncombe County ambulance which took her to Asheville Memorial Mission Hospital.

The ambulance arrived at the hospital shortly before 10:00 a.m. Dr. Thomas Howald testified that upon arrival Joyce was not breathing and had no pulse. She was foaming at the mouth, and her pupils were pinpointed. Dr. Howald stated that the bubblous secretions or foam had an odor which he associated with an organophosphate insecticide such as Malathion or Diazinon. He detected the same odor in her vomitus. Dr. Howald further testified that an organophosphate poison is the only type of poison that would cause the symptoms which he observed. He also opined that the poison was introduced into Joyce's system orally as opposed to being absorbed through the skin. Dr. Howald was also of the opinion that in order for Joyce to exhibit the symptoms that he observed, she would have had to orally ingest the poison within thirty minutes to two hours of the onset of the symptoms. He also stated that the symptoms he observed could not have been the result of a periodic, chronic exposure to organophosphate poisoning.

Despite a valiant effort by medical personnel to reverse the effects of the poison, Joyce suffered irreversible brain death. Life support systems were withdrawn on the afternoon of 20 June 1984, and Joyce died approximately thirty minutes later without ever regaining consciousness.

Tim Ramsey, a friend of the defendant, testified that he had a conversation with the defendant at the hospital on 20 June 1984. He testified that the defendant told him that the doctors had said Joyce "had got in some kind of poisoning." Ramsey stated that the defendant offered to take him to his house and show him what Joyce "had gotten into." He also testified that the defendant said half a teaspoon of the poison would kill a person. Ramsey further testified that approximately one month after the defendant and his wife separated, the defendant told him that he "would rather see the kids in hell as his wife have them."

On the afternoon of 20 June 1984, Dr. David Biggers, a pathologist at Asheville Memorial Mission Hospital, performed an autopsy on the body of Joyce Johnson. He testified that, in his opinion, Joyce's death was caused by extensive swelling of and softening of the brain. Dr. Biggers further testified that this opinion would be consistent with a finding of death resulting from organophosphate poisoning.

John Neal, a supervising chemist with the Occupational Health Pesticide Unit of the Public Health Laboratory of North Carolina, testified for the State. He analyzed a stomach fluid sample which was taken from Joyce Johnson upon her arrival at Asheville Memorial Mission Hospital. Mr. Neal testified that the sample contained 18.9 micrograms of Diazinon per gram of liquid.

Dr. Page Hudson, Chief Medical Examiner for the State of North Carolina, testified for the State. He testified that Diazinon is an organophosphate poison that may be introduced into the body through oral ingestion or absorption through the skin. He stated, however, that his experience and training indicated Diazinon poisoning could cause serious illness or death only when it had been orally ingested. Dr. Hudson was of the opinion that a teaspoon of Diazinon, administered orally, would be fatal to a child of Joyce's age and size. Dr. Hudson also testified that the various symptoms exhibited by Joyce and noted by Christopher Johnson, the E.M.T.s, and medical personnel at the hospital were consistent with organophosphate poisoning. He also agreed with Dr. Biggers' opinion that Joyce's death was caused by brain damage resulting from organophosphate poisoning.

The defendant testified on his own behalf. He stated that in early June 1984, he sprayed his house with Malathion in order to alleviate an insect problem. The insecticide which was left over was placed in a container and left on the back porch.

The defendant further testified that on the morning of 17 June 1984, he woke up his two children and prepared to go into town to get some gas. When Joyce acted as though she was not feeling well, the defendant was reminded that she was on medication. The defendant stated that he went to the refrigerator, got the bottle of medicine, and gave Joyce a teaspoonful. He then proceeded to town. He admitted asking the E.M.T. in the cafe about the whereabouts of the ambulance, but he indicated that he did so merely out of curiosity after observing that it was not parked in its usual location. The defendant denied telling Tim Ramsey that he had any poison at his house. He also denied making the statement attributed to him by his wife in which he threatened to kill his children and himself. The defendant testified that he loved Joyce and Christopher, and he denied administering poison to Joyce.

Leroy Johnson, the defendant's father, testified that he took Christopher to the hospital when he became sick in early June. Mr. Johnson told the doctor that Christopher had entered the house immediately after it had been sprayed for insects. The doctor asked if there was any of the insecticide remaining. Mr. Johnson said yes and brought the container to the hospital. He testified that he never saw the container again. The defendant's mother testified that after Christopher was poisoned, the defendant scrubbed the entire house in an effort to remove all traces of the poison. Carol Johnson, the defendant's sister-in-law, testified that she was present during the confrontation during which the defendant was alleged to have threatened to kill his children. Carol Johnson testified that the defendant made no statement with regard to a "Ward man from Hot Springs." The defense also produced several witnesses who testified that the defendant had a good relationship with his children.

The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder.

The defendant initially argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to appoint a medical expert to assist in the preparation of his defense. The defendant contends that such an expert would have aided in the investigation and preparation of his trial through the evaluation of medical reports, the autopsy results and samples, and the prevailing scientific data on organophosphate poisons. Defendant contends that the denial of the motion deprived him of his right to a fair trial. We conclude that the trial court did not err in denying this motion.

Under N.C.G.S. § 7A-450(b), the State must provide an indigent defendant "with counsel and the other necessary expenses of...

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