Johnston jurors hear opening arguments
The Cash Feenz murder trial of defendant Kemar Johnston began Friday with opening statements, followed by testimony from a handful of witnesses.
Assistant State Attorney Marie Doerr and defense attorney Terry Lenamon described for jurors an October 2006 birthday party that started at Johnston’s Cape Coral duplex, where he lived with two of his co-defendants, and ended with the deaths of Alexis Sosa, 18, and Jeffrey Sosa, 14. Ten people were arrested and charged in connection with the murders.
The 12-member jury, along with two alternate jurors, were told Friday about how the Sosas were beaten, tortured and hog-tied at the duplex, then driven to an industrial park in the north Cape. There the uncle and nephew were fatally shot, and the body of Alexis was burned in the trunk of a car. Firefighters responding to a call about a fire at the park discovered the car, Jeffrey’s body next to it and the charred remains of Alexis.
The prosecution said Friday that Johnston played a main role in the murders, while the defense argued that he did not, that Johnston had no real motive for hurting the Sosas.
“Alexis Sosa is dead. Jeffrey Sosa is dead,” Doerr said, “and the evidence is going to show their deaths are the direct result of Kemar Johnston and his co-defendants’ actions.”
“You will discover Alexis Sosa was a violent, out-of-control, crack-smoking, gun-carrying member of this community and, not only did he cross one person, he pretty much crossed everybody at that party except Kemar Johnston,” Lenamon said.
“The person who had the least motive in this case to hurt these young men was Kemar Johnston,” he added.
Johnston’s father, Hugh Johnston, agreed Friday. At the end of the day’s proceedings, he said the prosecution is making it seem that his son was the ringleader in the crime.
“He wasn’t even friends with the Sosas, and he didn’t even know them,” Hugh Johnston said, adding that the birthday gathering was a surprise party.
“That incident (the double murder) stems from a previous friction between (Kenneth) Lopez and (Paul) Nunes,” he said.
Kemar Johnston, 23, faces two counts each of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole or death.
“You may be asking yourself, ‘How in the world do you go from point A to point B?'” Doerr said, referring to the jump from a birthday party to a double murder.
She told the jury that the Sosas were not “perfect angels” and that there was “bad blood” between Alexis and a lot of the party-goers at Johnston’s duplex, adding that Jeffrey was at the “wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.”
Doerr said Johnston held a gun to the Sosas during the beatings, preventing them from leaving the party, then instructed one person to hog-tie the two. She said that he told another person to retrieve a Taser to use on the two and urged some of his co-defendants to carve things on the Sosas’ bodies using a knife.
“This is peer pressure at its ugliest,” Doerr said. “You’ll hear from some of these party-goers … I want you to listen to how consistent everything is.”
Lenamon called Johnston’s co-defendant, Kenneth “Ant” Lopez, the real mastermind behind the murders, adding that Lopez admitted to one witness that he shot the Sosas. He said others charged in the crime had a greater motive for hurting Alexis Sosa, including a drug deal gone bad and threats of violence.
The night before the killings, Alexis threw a brick through the car window of co-defendant Paul Nunes’ mother’s car, Lenamon told the jury.
“What began as a celebration of life ended in a horrible, horrible tragedy,” he said. “We’re going to look at what happened, how the situation evolved into what it evolved into. We’re going to try to seek the truth, try to bring you what we believe are the facts and circumstances that led up to the tragic event of the deaths of these two young men.”
Lenamon questioned whether the firearm alleged by police to have been used in the murders is the correct one and whose weapon it was. He said Johnston was so “messed up” at the party on drugs and alcohol that witnesses reported “he was a different person.”
Lenamon also claimed that the lead detective lacked the experience to handle the case, and that threats and lies were used during police interrogations.
“They were threatening these kids, trying to get to the bottom of this horrible, horrible crime,” he said.
After opening statements, the prosecution called four witnesses to the stand to testify.
Lt. Brian Lauer, of the Cape Coral Fire Department, told the jury about responding to a report of a fire at the industrial park, only to discover the crime scene. He said the car was “fairly engulfed” in flames when the fire units arrived, and later he saw “what looked like an exposed leg bone.”
Following cross-examination by the defense, Lauer was dismissed and a silent video of the crime scene was played for the jurors. It contained footage of the area surrounding the scene, along with the car and the body of Jeffrey as they were discovered that day.
Cape Coral Police Detective Kurt Grau, the lead detective who was also responsible for overseeing police questioning in the case, testified about collecting statements from the witnesses and suspects. He told the jury about how the information led to the arrests.
During cross-examination, Lenamon questioned whether Grau and other detectives mistreated witnesses and suspects during the interviews to collect the information they needed to solve the case. He asked if Grau was under pressure to solve the case.
“Yes, we all wanted to find out what happened and who did it,” he said. “We knew what happened. We were at our wits end trying to get these kids to tell us.”
Lenamon questioned Grau’s training and confirmed the Cape detective’s awareness of one’s Constitutional rights, including one’s right to not have to answer questions if one does not wish to and one’s right to have an attorney present if one wants one. He asked Grau if he had refused one co-defendant’s request for an attorney.
Grau said he did not refuse anyone a lawyer during his interrogations.
Forensic specialist Elizabeth Becka Lansky, of the Cape Coral Police Department, also testified Friday, along with CCPD Forensic Supervisor Larry Stringham. Lansky told the jury about collecting a lighter, comforter and sheet, and live bullets and bullet casings from at least two different firearms from the industrial park crime scene.
She said metal detectors were used to locate any unseen bullets or casings, and bullets were collected from the bodies, too.
During cross-examination, defense attorney and co-counsel David A. Brener questioned Lansky on how the scene was secured and the collection of the evidence. Lansky reported that fire personnel were on scene before she got there, which Brener indicated could have contaminated the crime scene.
Stringham told the jury about extending the initial boundaries of the crime scene after he arrived, as well as collecting evidence from Johnston’s duplex on Northeast Eighth Place and a home on Northeast Ninth Avenue, where blood was documented on a door handle.
He said the blood on the handle looked like “transfer,” as if someone had blood on themself and touched the handle. Stringham added that tests at the duplex revealed someone may have cleaned recently with bleach or cleaners and the floor was void of a finish.
“Either the tile or carpet had been removed,” he said.
On cross-examination, Brener asked Stringham why he sent the weapons, bullets and casings collected during the investigation to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for ballistic testing first, which is typically the last division to analyze evidence because “ballistic testing and handling could disturb or destroy evidence.” Bener also pointed out that Stringham did not specifically request fingerprint or DNA testing on the items.
The defense had Stringham explain how some evidence, stretches of the crime scene, had to be recreated after a computer crash. Brener also questioned why certain items found at the home on Ninth Avenue were not sent to the FDLE for analysis, including a bloody towel, knife and empty Dr. Pepper cans and bottles found in the trash.
An empty Dr. Pepper can was photographed at the crime scene at the industrial park. Stringham and Lansky testified that the can had not been tested for fingerprints.
The trial continues at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Lee County Justice Center in Fort Myers before 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese. Assistant State Attorney Bob Lee is also prosecuting the case.
Roderick Washington and Ashley Toye were found guilty following separate trials. Washington received four consecutive life sentences plus 30 years in prison, and Toye was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Melissa Rivera, Iriana Santos, Alexis Fernandez, Cody Roux and Michael Balint have each pleaded guilty to lesser crimes and will receive prison sentences varying between 14 years and 26 years in exchange for their testimony.
Lopez is scheduled to go to trial Feb. 1.
Nunes, who pleaded guilty in August for a reduced sentence of 40 years, has a status conference in March with his new attorney, Melodee Smith. Reese appointed Smith to the case soon after Nunes requested that his plea deal, requiring that he testify against Lopez and Johnston, be withdrawn.