Inmate's actions called strange

Fellow prisoners testify on behavior before killing on bus

May 13, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

Two inmates who have been housed in the same prison tier as twice-convicted killer Kevin G. Johns Jr. testified yesterday that he acted strangely in the months before authorities say he strangled another prisoner on a bus traveling from Hagerstown to a maximum-security prison in Baltimore.

The two men, who are both serving time for murder convictions, told the judge hearing the case that Johns covered the walls of his cell with writing and drawings, often could be heard talking to himself and sometimes refused to eat prison food or candy from his friends for fear that it was poisoned.

Asked whether Johns had a cellmate during the times that he was heard babbling for up to two days straight, inmate Samuel Small laughed.

"No, he ain't got no cellmate," Small testified. "Unless that little green man he sees is his cellmate."

The inmates testified on the fourth day of Johns' capital murder trial as defense attorneys opened their part of the case, focusing on evidence regarding Johns' mental health and criminal responsibility.

Johns, 25, who is serving a 35-year sentence and life without the possibility of parole for two separate murder convictions, has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in the death of Philip E. Parker Jr. The 20-year-old inmate was strangled Feb. 2, 2005 on a prison bus as it rumbled through the pre-dawn darkness from Hagerstown to Baltimore's Supermax prison.

The legal standard for determining a defendant's criminal responsibility revolves around his ability to "appreciate the criminality of his conduct" or "conform his conduct to the requirements of the law." In Johns' case, defense attorneys must generally prove by a preponderance of the evidence -- that is, it is more likely than not -- that a mental defect or mental disorder prevents him from controlling his behavior or understanding that his actions are criminal.

In his opening statement last week, defense attorney Harry J. Trainor Jr. told the judge that Johns has been institutionalized for most of his life and was first prescribed anti-psychotic medications at the age of 8. The defense attorney said his client has suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, lead paint poisoning and serious child abuse and has variously been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, a dissociative disorder and bipolar disorder.

Baltimore County prosecutor S. Ann Brobst countered in her opening statement that although the defendant has a long history of mental health problems, Johns knew what he was doing when he strangled his fellow inmate aboard the prison bus and hoped that his standing within the state's Division of Correction would improve with the third killing.

Doctors from the state's maximum-security, forensic psychiatric hospital found him to be criminally responsible.

Seeking to rebut those conclusions, Johns' attorneys called to the witness stand yesterday two Supermax inmates who have been housed near him, a nurse from a residential treatment center where he spent several years as a teenager and a social worker who helped his lawyers prepare for the sentencing hearing in his last murder case when he was convicted of strangling his cellmate at a Hagerstown prison.

The defense team also made arrangements for their client to be examined by a forensic psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist and a behavioral neurologist. The doctors are expected to testify this week.

Reflecting the security concerns that have affected most every aspect of Johns' case, the neurologist sought permission from the warden of Supermax to have the defendant uncuffed for 15 minutes to test his fine-motor movements but requested that correctional officers be brought into the room for that portion of the exam, according to court records.

Johns is generally brought to and from the Harford County courthouse, where the case is being tried, in a prison vehicle by himself. In court, he has remained heavily restrained - his ankles shackled and his wrists cuffed tightly to a thick chain locked around his waist - and guarded by an unarmed DOC security team and a number of sheriff's deputies with guns.

Deputies checked the bags yesterday of most witnesses and everyone sitting in the gallery of the courtroom and used hand-held metal detectors at the courtroom door, even though the people and their belongings had been screened by courthouse security at the building's entrance.

Inmates testifying in the case also remain shackled and handcuffed in the courtroom.

One prisoner, Robert L. McFarlin testified that he sometimes saw Johns "in a deep conversation" in an empty cell about a dozen times during the three months or so when they were housed on the same tier at Supermax and that Johns once told him that he had been talking to the devil.

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