Christopher Johnson sentenced to death for killing infant son
By By Janet Little Cooper
Minutes after firing his defense attorneys Friday, Christopher Thomas Johnson told an Escambia County jury that he killed his infant son and deservedto die for it.
A few hours later, the jury agreed.
The Atmore man was convicted on capital murder charges in the death of his
six-month-old son, Elias Ocean Johnson.
"I knew what I was doing," Johnson said in his testimony to the jury. "The
last words I said to my son was 'You go see Jesus.'"
Elias was pronounced dead at Atmore Community Hospital on Feb. 20, 2005, after being fatally injured by his father during the early morning hours of the day as evidence in the case showed.
"I hated my wife," Johnson told the jury. "By killing him, I didn't have to be with her anymore or hear her threats of sending me to jail."
Johnson's testimony came near the end of a two-and-a-half day trial at the Escambia County Courthouse in Brewton.
Attorneys for Johnson were public defender Todd Stearns and co-counsel Charles Johns, whom he fired on the final hours of the trial.
"The dismissal came as a surprise to us," Johns said. "We were prepared to go forward in the case in his defense. We did not expect that he would make that decision."
Johnson said in his open-court dismissal of his attorneys that he no longer trusted the pair to represent him to an end that he desired.
"They lied to me and I don't trust them," Johnson said. "I was misled by them, either intentionally or accidentally. They did not inform me of options the jury might be faced with in this case. I went with their advice not to testify for myself. I want to testify and let the truth be heard."
Johns said that Johnson said he was not aware early on that the jury might be faced with a choice between a capital murder or manslaughter conviction in the case.
"When he realized manslaughter was a possible conviction, he decided he'd rather be executed rather than go to jail for manslaughter," Johns said.
"It's hard to say what the jury would have decided without his admission and testimony, but they would have been given the option of manslaughter in the case."
Evidence in the case presented by prosecuting attorney, Reo Kirkland Jr. and District Attorney Steve Billy included expert witness and dozens of photos and graphs detailing an autopsy performed by the Department of Forensic Sciences staff in Mobile.
"A conservative estimate of 85 separate injuries to this child was evident in the autopsy," Dr. Kathleen Enstice, a member of the DFS team at the time of the child's death. "The injuries evident in the autopsy were the result of sever forceful impacts, very severe, traumatic injuries inflicted by another person."
Dana Johnson, the mother of the child and Johnson's wife at the time of the incident, testified that she had seen Johnson putting pressure on the child at their home.
"He (Johnson) would use his arms to put pressure on Elias to quieten him," Mrs. Johnson said. "Chris put his hand over Elias' mouth sometimes. I would take Elias away from him sometimes, but I don't think he was trying to hurt him."
In evidence from the autopsy report, Enstice indicated that pressure, like the pressure Mrs. Johnson had mentioned would never have caused the injuries seen in this case.
"Pressure does not cause the deep contusions that were found around Elias' head," Enstice said. "Particularly in the forehead area. Multiple impact sites are not caused by pressure. Pressure does not tear those blood vessels. It is impossible for that to happen."
Also during testimony, a taped recording of a statement given to Atmore Police just prior to Johnson's arrest was played for the jury. During that statement, Johnson admitted to slapping the child twice, putting his fingers in his mouth and putting his hand over the child's mouth.
"I put two fingers in his mouth," Johnson said in the recorded interview. "I was holding down his tongue to keep him quiet so he would not wake up his mother. When I pulled my fingers out, there was some blood. I didn't think
much of it. It seemed like he was having a little trouble breathing, but not much. Kind of like he had phlegm in his throat, but he was breathing and he went back to sleep."
As the tape was played in court, Johnson broke down in sobs.
Enstice testified that Elias had blood in his stomach and lungs, which, she said indicated that he had swallowed blood and breathed blood into his lungs.
"There were several milliliters of blood in the stomach," Enstice said."That tells us Elias was swallowing blood."
Other injuries in the mouth also confirmed Johnson's taped admission of putting fingers into the mouth of the baby, Enstice said.
"Due to the traumatic injury into the back of the throat," Enstice said, "in my opinion it would be consistent" with fingers being pushed into the throat.
Other injuries identified and pointed out in photos by Enstice included numerous small bruises across the face; swollen ears; a swollen lower lip; a number of other scrapes and bruises throughout the entire region of the child's head as well as a bite mark on the child's right arm near the elbow.
"The trauma shown would indicate blows to the head," Enstice said. "The brain is swollen. In babies, swelling occurs quickly in response to any trauma to the head. We can see three kinds of trauma from this (evidence)."
Scratches were also evident from the autopsy photos shown during the trial. In one photo, Enstice pointed out the ethmoid, or sinus, bone in the child's skull.
"The ethomoid bone is broken and the sinus region is filled with blood," Enstice said. "That is consistent with blunt force trauma."
In his closing statement to the jury, Johnson maintained he did not cause blunt force injuries to his son.
"I did slap him twice," Johnson said. "I did put my hand over his mouth and I did put my fingers in his mouth. But Dr. Enstice is wrong. I did not cause blunt force injuries to my son."
Following Johnson's admission on the witness stand, the jury was given instructions by Brad Byrne, presiding judge in the case, on how to proceed in deliberations.
Less than a half hour later, the jury returned with a guilty verdict on capital murder charges against Johnson.
Kirkland thanked the jury for their verdict and asked that they recommend the death penalty.
Johnson also addressed the jury prior to the penalty phase of the case.
"I am 34 years old," Johnson said. "I don't want to spend the next 40 years in prison. Don't hold it against yourself for what you have to do. I've already made that decision. There is no other sentence than death that can be made today."
Johnson has been returned to the Escambia County Detention Center where he will remain until he can be processed into a prison facility.
According to information from the law enforcement officials, Johnson may remain in the Escambia County facility for up to 30 days before being transferred to another facility.
Although an immediate appeal is typical when guilty verdicts are returned in capital murder cases, Johnson made it a point twice during the closing of the trial that he did not wish the case to be appealed.
"I want to go on record as saying that I don't want to appeal the verdict or the sentencing," Johnson told Judge Byrne. "I don't want anyone else to appeal it for me either. This is what I deserve."