Trial begins in inmate's death

Convicted killer plans insanity defense in case that sparked death penalty debate

May 06, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

Todd Vest was driving twice-convicted killer Kevin G. Johns Jr. from a Hagerstown courthouse back to prison in February 2005 when the inmate began chattering away in the back of the caged van.

"They think it's bad now. The killing has just begun," the correctional officer quoted Johns as saying. "They will have to kill me to stop the killing."

Vest testified yesterday that he thought nothing of the remarks at the time, since defendants say all kinds of things after they are sentenced in court.

But the next morning, a 20-year-old inmate riding a prison bus with Johns was strangled during the pre-dawn drive from Hagerstown to Baltimore's maximum-security prison. Johns stepped off the bus at Supermax in a bloody T-shirt and a waist chain so loose that he could have stepped right out of it, prison officials testified yesterday.

The testimony came on the opening day of Johns' capital murder trial in the inmate's death amid heavy security in the Bel Air courtroom where the case is being tried. The case was delayed yesterday morning after guards at Supermax found a piece of metal in the defendant's shoe as they prepared him for court.

Once Johns arrived at the courthouse, he remained heavily restrained - his ankles shackled and his wrists cuffed tightly to a thick chain locked around his waist - and guarded by a number of unarmed correctional officers and sheriff's deputies with guns.

Harford County Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. had contemplated, but decided against, also outfitting Johns with a stun device that officers could trigger in the courtroom with a remote if needed.

Asked by the judge whether he understood that he would remain restrained throughout the trial, Johns responded, "Somewhat. But I don't understand why."

Johns, 25, has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in the Feb. 2, 2005 death of Philip E. Parker Jr., an inmate who was serving a 31/2-year sentence for a robbery involving a pellet gun.

The case sparked the firing of three correctional officers who were on the bus and played a pivotal role in the Maryland General Assembly's debate of a death penalty repeal during the last two legislative sessions.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican whose vote against the repeal deadlocked the issue 5-5 in a Senate committee, has said he was persuaded by the Johns case.

"Unless they execute a guy like that," Mooney said late last year, "I don't feel assured he's not going to kill another person."

The bulk of the death penalty trial, which is scheduled to last three to four weeks, is expected to focus on the testimony of psychiatric experts and medical doctors who have examined Johns, who has been institutionalized for most of his life. He was first prescribed anti-psychotic medications at the age of 8 and tried to hang himself six years later at 14, defense attorney Harry J. Trainor Jr. said in his opening statement.

"Without proper treatment and medications, his behavior is totally unpredictable," he said.

Johns is already serving 35 years for killing his uncle in 2002. Johns tried to strangle his uncle with a belt and then, after finding him still breathing, attempted to cut off his head with a rusty saw and a box cutter before stuffing him into a closet.

The day before Parker was killed on the prison bus, Johns was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for strangling his 16-year-old prison cellmate.

At that sentencing hearing, Parker - who knew Johns from a state-run residential treatment program in Catonsville for youths with mental health problems - testified on the convicted killer's behalf. Johns himself told Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III that he needed psychiatric treatment and would likely kill again if he did not get it.

"He looked straight at Judge Wright and said, 'I'll do it again,' " Washington County prosecutor Joseph Michael testified yesterday of the Feb. 1, 2005, sentencing hearing.

In her opening statement, Baltimore County prosecutor S. Ann Brobst told the judge that Johns confessed to strangling Parker and told investigators that the act of killing causes him to become sexually aroused. Acknowledging that the defendant has a long history of mental health problems, the prosecutor said that Johns' strangling of his fellow inmate aboard the prison bus was "goal-oriented."

"He knew what he was doing. He did it because he enjoys doing it," Brobst said, adding that Johns believed his standing within the state's prison system would improve with the third killing.

Because Johns decided to have a judge - rather than a jury - hear the first two phases of his death penalty case, it will be Plitt who decides first whether Johns is guilty of first-degree murder and then whether he is criminally responsible for the death.

Trainor, a defense attorney, focused much of his opening statement on the second determination.

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