Inmate testifies about seeing killing on bus

Prisoner was strangled while being transported

May 08, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

Baltimore County prosecutors wrapped up the first part of their case yesterday in the capital murder trial of a twice-convicted killer who is charged with strangling to death another inmate aboard a prison bus in February 2005.

They ended their guilt-innocence portion of the death penalty trial with the testimony of a convicted thief who was sitting directly behind Kevin G. Johns Jr. the morning that authorities say he killed Philip E. Parker Jr. as the prison bus rumbled through the predawn darkness from Hagerstown to Baltimore's maximum-security Supermax prison.

"I seen him hook him with his left arm, pull back and yank down on him until he thought he wasn't breathing," Patrick Cook testified. "Further down the road, he started to stir."

Sheriff's deputies took extra precautions in the courtroom yesterday, a day after the trial was disrupted by the victim's father hurling his cane at the defendant. Deputies checked the purses and bags of everyone who entered the courtroom - even though the items had already been screened by courthouse security at the building's entrance - and taped together the only two chairs in the courtroom's gallery that were not bolted to the floor.

Cook, 45, the only witness to testify yesterday, told the judge that Johns rose twice from his seat near the back of the bus to "choke out" the other inmate.

"He grabbed him again and choked him out until he was no longer breathing," Cook testified. All the while, he added, Johns was saying, "This is what I do best" and that he became sexually aroused with such actions.

Parker, 20, an inmate who had testified on Johns' behalf a day earlier at a sentencing hearing in Hagerstown, did not stir again after the second attack. He had been serving a 31/2-year sentence for an unarmed robbery.

Cook's account virtually matched what Johns told prison investigators he did in confessing to the Feb. 2, 2005, killing.

Defense attorneys attacked the credibility of the inmate witness, asking him about a 41-page rap sheet that details convictions for theft, drug possession, theft schemes and making false statements to police, among other offenses during a lifetime of crime.

During cross examination, Cook acknowledged that he has had "quite a bit" of experience in the criminal justice system, that he doesn't hesitate to lie when doing so will help him and that he has learned to improve his situation by cooperating with prosecutors and police in other investigations.

Defense attorney Harry J. Trainor Jr. asked Cook specifically about his motivation for writing a letter in January to Carroll County prosecutors. In it, Cook wrote, "I am Baltimore County's star witness in the highly publicized capital murder trial scheduled to start in May," according to an excerpt that Trainor read aloud in court.

"You were trying to get some help from them?" Trainor asked.

Cook raised his voice in his response.

"I never gotten no help from nobody," he said, explaining that he had not lied about what happened on the prison bus the night of the killing or shared his account with investigators to benefit himself. "No matter what you say about me and what you think about me, I am not a bad person."

Johns, 25, is serving 35 years and life in prison without the possibility of parole for two separate murder convictions. He has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in the prison bus case.

Defense attorneys say Johns has struggled with mental disorders and been institutionalized for most of his life. First prescribed antipsychotic medications at the age of 8, Johns is "totally unpredictable" without the proper drugs and treatment, a defense attorney told the judge this week.

Defense attorneys are scheduled to begin calling witnesses Monday.

Harford County Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr., who was assigned to hear the case after the defense requested a venue change from Baltimore County, must first decide whether Johns is guilty of murder and then whether he is criminally responsible. If Johns is found guilty and criminally responsible, the defendant will then decide whether to be sentenced by the judge or a jury.

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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