Niagara Gazette

January 26, 2010

COURTS: Johnson gets the maximum for murder of his wife

<!--Rick Pfeiffer--><table width="234" border="0" cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" background="http://static.cnhi.zope.net/flashpromo/niagaragazette/images/byline_234x60.jpg" height="60"><tr><td><div align="center"><font size="3" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif">By Rick Pfeiffer</font><font face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif"><br /></font><font size="1" face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif"><a href="mailto:rick.pfeiffer@niagara-gazette.com">rick.pfeiffer@niagara-gazette.com</a></font></div></td></tr></table>

On a cold and blustery Highland Avenue, in the overcast of a late January afternoon, dozens of white balloons filled the gray skies and the crowd that gathered to release them yelled, “We love you Ahkenya. We miss you.”

It was the end of a day that saw the friends and family of Ahkenya Johnson watch her husband sentenced to up to life in prison for her murder, while at the same time Robert Johnson’s attorneys claimed another man has now confessed to the crime.

An overflow crowd that tried to pack into Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy’s courtroom forced Johnson’s sentencing to be moved across the rotunda of the County Courthouse in Lockport and into the larger ceremonial courtroom of Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza.

However, before the sentencing began, Johnson’s defense attorney, Michael McNelis, asked Murphy to throw out his client’s conviction and order a new trial. McNelis said on Friday he learned that another man, Thomas Pryor, has admitted that he killed Ahkenya.

“The nature of the relief I’m seeking is a new trial,” McNelis told Murphy. “Pryor confessed (to a jailhouse informant).

McNelis later told Murphy the informant is Robert Thousand, a 17-year-old and one of the accused killers of a group home counselor who was murdered in Lockport in June. Thousand, in an affidavit supplied to McNelis, claims Pryor confessed to killing Ahkenya Johnson during a conversation at the Niagara County Jail around Thanksgiving.

Assistant District Attorney Lisa Baehre told the judge Pryor’s name had come up during the homicide investigation but the evidence in the case led to Robert Johnson.

“Thomas Pryor’s name is not new,” Baehre said. “This is not new evidence. What Mr. Thousand states is hearsay, completely unreliable and inconsistent with the facts brought out at trial.”

Murphy told McNelis he was troubled by the claim being made just days before sentencing. The judge refused to delay imposing his sentence but told McNelis he would hold a hearing on the claim in mid-February.

The questioning of the jury verdict left some of Ahkenya Johnson’s family visibly shaken. The victim’s mother, Brenda Betton left the courtroom with tears streaming from her eyes. Outside the courtroom, she was comforted by Robert Johnson’s mother, Rosalind Russell.

“No matter what happens, we all have to stick together,” Russell said.

Back inside the courtroom, Johnson stood stoically with his defense lawyers as Murphy prepared to impose his sentence. He faced up to life behind bars for the jury verdict in October that found him guilty of second-degree murder and three counts of fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

Neither Baehre nor Ahkenya’s sister, Africa Oltz, minced any words in asking Murphy to give Johnson the maximum sentence.

Oltz called her one-time brother-in-law “a monster.” Baehre said the slaying was “a morbid work of art.”

The jury in the case deliberated for just over four hours before returning their verdict after a three-week trial.

“(Robert Johnson) cut (his wife’s) throat from ear to ear,” Baehre said, “Then he savagely plunged a knife, 49 times, into her body. The words that popped out at that trial were hate and rage.”

Baehre called the slaying “one of the most brutal and vicious” murders she has seen in more than a decade as a prosecutor.

“And (Johnson) has never exhibited remorse or sadness,” Baehre said.

Oltz, who is now raising the Johnson’s 10- and 5-year-old daughters, told Murphy the young girls are struggling to cope with the loss of their mother.

“The girls have been through counseling sessions (for emotions) that we as adults cannot understand ourselves,” Oltz said, her voice rising and choked with emotion. “What do you say to a 5-year-old who asks when is her mother coming back from heaven? What do I say?”

She said her sister’s death has changed her family’s life forever and left them with “a pain we would not wish on our worst enemy. It is a pain no one can erase.”

Then, Oltz told Murphy, “There is no punishment that can fit this crime, but we ask you do not allow this monster to commit another crime. He does not deserve to start his life over or be readmitted to society. I am asking you to dig deep, your honor. To take this personally, as if it was your daughter or child or mother.”

McNelis simply told Murphy his client was innocent.

“He has maintained his innocence, he continues to maintain his innocence,” McNelis said.

The defense lawyer told Murphy he had advised Johnson not to speak at the sentencing because of the upcoming hearing to have the jury verdict thrown out and a possible appeal of his case to a higher court.

Still, Murphy offered Johnson the chance to speak.

“You understand, you have an absolute right to speak to me,” the judge said. “Do you want to address this court?”

“No,” was all Johnson said.

Murphy said he’s been around longer than Baehre and he too was “hard-pressed to remember a murder of this viciousness.”

“Your conduct, from the time of your arrest through today strikes me as cold blooded and calculating,” Murphy told Johnson. “I see no reason not to give you the maximum.”

As Murphy told Johnson he would head to prison for at least 25 years and potentially life, many of the spectators began to cry. Ahkenya’s mom rocked back and forth and briefly raised her arms, as if in prayer.

“That means he’ll never be home again in his life,” Russell said.

Despite the harsh sentence, Russell said her former daughter-in-law’s family will remain close to her.

“I love them. They are and always will be family,” Russell said. “I loved Ahkenya. We had a wonderful relationship. That was my baby girl.”

Murphy also issued a lifetime order of protection that bars Johnson from any contact with his daughters.

“I am absolutely overjoyed that he will never have contact with those girls,” Oltz said. ‘There was no emotion from a man who found his wife brutally murdered. There is no other word for him other than monster.”

As Johnson was sentenced in Lockport, back in the Falls, outside the Jordan Gardens apartment were Ahkenya was slain, law enforcement and victim advocates held a rally against domestic violence, calling for greater public awareness of the crime.

Oltz said watching her sister and Johnson over the years, she feared she might become a domestic violence victim.

“I told (Ahkenya) he would do this to her,” Oltz said. “I told her please be careful, he will kill you.”