The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals recently decided a case involving one of the Defendants in the infamous Valentine's Day Massacre from Bradley County, TN in 1999. One of the defendants, Twanna Blair (Ms. Blair was represented by Davis & Hoss), was acquitted of all charges after a jury trial. Another Defendant, Maurice Johnson, was convicted of one count of especially aggravated robbery and three counts of first degree murder in the perpetration of an especially aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for each of the felony murder convictions and to twenty-five years for the especially aggravated robbery appeal. The third defendant, Michael Younger, was represented by John Cavett and Kim Parton. Mr. Younger's trial ended in a mistrial after egregious prosecutorial misconduct. The state then dismissed the case against Younger. This appeal deals with the conviction of Maurice Johnson.
The Defendant argued on appeal, among other things, that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions. Specifically, he argued that the State did not adequately prove that he was in the process of robbing the victims when they were killed. According to him, he was robbed and beaten a few weeks before a party in early February of that year. He suspected that the person who robbed him was OJ Blair, one of the victims of the murders. On the night of the murders, he admits to going to the victims' residence to "get his money back" from the person who robbed him. Johnson argued that the State's only mention of money in this transaction was Johnson's own statement to "get his money back"; citing to other case law, Johnson argued that the owner of the money was Johnson himself rather than OJ Blair. The precedent used, State v. Goins, stated that "the State must show that the property is owned by someone other than the defendant." Without adequate proof, Johnson argued, his convictions should be reversed.
The Court responded to this stating that the TN criminal code defines an "owner" as,
"a person, other than the Defendant, who has possession of or interest other than a mortgage, deed of trust or security interest in property, even though that possession or interest is unlawful and without whose consent the defendant has no authority to exert control over the property."
Under this definition, OJ Blair is not required to be in lawful possession of the money. In this case, OJ was in possession of the money, and the defendant had no authority to exert control over the money. The Court held that a rational trier of fact could have concluded that Johnson committed the three murders in the perpetration of an attempted especially aggravated robbery. The evidence at trial proved that the Defendant went to the residence on the day of the murders with the intent to take "his" money from OJ Blair. That is all the proof necessary to support the Defendant's murder convictions; i.e. murders that were committed in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate an especially aggravated robbery.
The Court further held, however, that Johnson's conviction for especially aggravated robbery should be reversed. The evidence presented at trial established that the robbery never progressed beyond an attempt. There is no evidence that the Defendant ever "obtained or exercised control over anything at the time of the homicides." The evidence presented was that nothing in the apartment seemed to be ransacked or disarrayed; there didn't seem to be any missing items in the house and there were no signs of a struggle. This evidence is sufficient, however, to support the lesser included offense of attempted especially aggravated robbery but the statute of limitations on that crime is eight years. Since more than eight years have passed since this incident, Johnson cannot be prosecuted for that crime.
In sum, while the Court agreed with Johnson that there was not enough evidence presented at trial to satisfy the especially aggravated robbery charge, there was enough evidence to satisfy the three murder convictions for a murder committed in the perpetration of an attempted especially aggravated robbery.