Defense questions credibility of two witnesses in Johnston trial
In day three of the murder trial against defendant Kemar Johnson, the state called to testify only two witnesses, both whose creditability was questioned by the defense during cross-examination Wednesday.
Michael Marquis Taylor and William Arciszewski told the 12-member jury what they saw and heard during an October 2006 birthday party that ended in the deaths of Alexis Sosa, 18, and his 14-year-old nephew, Jeffrey Sosa.
The Sosas were reportedly hog-tied, beaten and tortured at a Cape Coral duplex where the party took place, and then driven to an industrial park in north Cape Coral, where they were fatally shot and the body of Alexis was burned in the trunk of a car. Their bodies were discovered by fire units responding to a call about a fire at the industrial site.
Johnston, 23, was one of 10 people charged in connection to the double homicide. He faces two counts each of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. If he is convicted, Johnston faces life in prison without parole or death.
Taylor testified Wednesday that he attended the birthday party and that there were 30-50 people present. He was on the back patio when he heard Johnston yelling and screaming. Inside, he saw Johnston “pistol-whipping Alex Sosa” in the head. Taylor said Johnston ‘s co-defendants, Roderick Washing-ton and Kenneth “Ant” Lopez, also had firearms.
The Sosas were then tied by “some kid with red hair” while Washington guarded them with a rifle. According to Taylor , the Sosas’ shirts were ripped open and Johnston used a knife to carve letters into their backs,. Then Washington poured bleach on Alexis.
Taylor said that during all this, it sounded like Jeffrey was mumbling something.
“It sounded like he was praying,” Taylor said, adding that the Sosas were still at the duplex when he left.
During cross-examination by defense attorney Terry Lenamon, Taylor testified that he was on house arrest at the time of the party, but that he got permission from his probation officer to leave the house because his mother lied and said they were going to the movies. Taylor said his mother attended the party with him, and that both were drinking and doing drugs before and during the party.
Upon questioning by the defense, Taylor admitted that he was concerned about going to jail because he had lied to his probation officer about the party and knew the police could cause problems for him if he did not cooperate with their homicide investigation. He said the police told him that they did not believe him and implied that he would be charged if he did not cooperate.
Taylor agreed with Lenamon that because of these factors, he lied to the police, told the police what they wanted to hear and told different stories about what happened the night of the party. Police also helped him piece together what happened that night because he had been so messed up on alcohol and drugs, including Ecstasy, he said.
In one of many instances Wednesday, the defense compared the witness’ testimony to previous statements given to the police and the State Attorney’s Office. Lenamon noted that Taylor testified that Johnston pistol-whipped Alexis, but in his statement to police, Taylor said Alexis was pistol-whipped by “a black dude … I don’t know his name.”
Assistant State Attorney Bob Lee asked Taylor if he had told the truth Wednesday and had tried his best with his testimony. Taylor said that he had before being escorted from the courtroom by a deputy. He is being held in the county jail on violation of probation for a burglary charge unrelated to the homicides.
Arciszewski testified Wednes-day that the Cash Feenz was simply a rap group consisting of him, two others and Johnston, who was his best friend. He said no one else was part of the Cash Feenz, and the party was supposed to be a surprise for Johnston’s 20th birthday, though he was under the assumption that Johnston knew about the party.
According to Arciszewski, the party was in full swing when Alexis and Jeffrey Sosa arrived and then everything changed.
“Everything stood still. It was electric in the air. Everything got quiet,” he said, adding that is when a voice message was played by Johnston — the message is reported to have been Alexis threatening someone’s family.
“Everyone crowded around them like it was a spectacle,” Arciszewski said of the Sosas trapped in the kitchen area. “There was just a sea of people, is the best way I can describe it.”
He told the jury that he next heard plates break and that the punches started to fly.
“I had no idea that was going to happen,” Arciszewski said, adding that the Sosa were then tied up and he left the kitchen. “I was going to the bathroom to hide from it.”
He testified that Washington had a rifle and Johnston had a handgun. Coming and going from the kitchen to the bathroom in an effort to distance himself from what was going on, Arciszewski said he only heard and saw some things. He smelled bleach at one point in time and saw the carvings on the Sosas’ back.
He finally heard a gunshot while he was in the bathroom.
According to Arciszewski, Johnston was “sitting on the floor in the kitchen” when he exited the bathroom and he went and sat on the sofa.
“Alex had a black trash bag over his head,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to him but there was a bag over his head.”
Arciszewski said the Sosas were carried out of the house by Washington and Johnston and a few others left with them. He did not hear where they were taking the two, but he believed he heard what sounded like a truck lid closing.
“I heard Jeffrey say, ‘Please don’t kill me,'” Arciszewski said. “He was told to shut … up.”
The group, including Johnston, Lopez and Washington, among others, left and later returned to the duplex. With no way to leave, Arciszewski spent the night and woke up the next morning to find three females — co-defendants in the case — cleaning the home, he said.
“They were mopping, wiping things down, throwing things in a trash bag,” he said.
Under cross-examination by the defense, Arciszewski testified that Johnston was a close friend who stood up for him against those who bullied him for having cerebral palsy. He said Johnston was
“laid back” and helped take care of his brother’s children — Johnston’s brother had been jailed months prior to the party — by providing love, money and toys.
Arciszewski admitted under questioning by Lenamon that he was a regular smoker of marijuana around the time of the party, that he was getting into trouble and that he was fighting with his parents. When Arciszewski moved out of his parents’ home, Johnston let him live at the duplex and provided him with food, he said.
“He was taking care of me,”Arciszewski said of Johnston.
He also testified that Johnston allowed others to reside at the duplex, that Johnston sold marijuana and was “teaching him the game,” and that others staying at the duplex were selling drugs as well, including crack cocaine and prescription pills.
“It was sort of like a reject orphanage,” Arciszewski said. “People would just come together.”
In the days leading up to the party, Johnston had begun to experiment with Ecstasy and smoking cocaine with his marijuana. He was “disturbed” no one was writing or visiting his brother in jail and was worried about his brother’s children and taking care of them, Arciszewski said under questioning by the defense.
“He threw more parties, but he did the same things he basically had always done,” he said, adding that Johnson started “for lack of a better term, going off the deep end.”
Arciszewski said Johnston was not like himself at the party, that “he became like a rabid dog,” but that Johnston was not aggressive toward him. He also testified that when Lopez returned to the duplex that he “broke down crying, got emotional.”
“He said, ‘I can’t believe it. I killed him. I killed the boy,'” Arciszewski said.
As with Taylor , the defense spent time comparing Arciszew-ski’s testimony Wednesday with previous statements he had given, including testimony in three trials for two people charged in connection to the case. Lenamon pointed out the differences in his responses to questions about the carvings, guns, sequence of the night’s events and motive for cooperating with police, among others.
Lenamon worked through Arciszewski’s statements to police — four in total — and noted how Arciszewski told police that he knew nothing and saw nothing in the beginning, but how his story and knowledge of what happened expanded under more police questioning.
“According to your testimony today, those are all lies?” he asked Arciszewski, referring to his initial statement to police that he knew nothing.
“Yes, sir,” Arciszewski replied.
Lenamon also questioned police techniques, noting Arciszewski was threatened with the death penalty and charges for accessory to murder. According to the statements collected by the police, detectives said they were going to “wash their hands” of those who lied or held back information about the homicides, Lenamon reported.
“It’s either death or life in prison,” he said Arciszewski was told, reading from the police statements. “You have to tell us what happened … “
Another time he was told to “get it off your chest, you’re going to sleep better,” Lenamon said, indicating police seemed to be pushing Arciszewski in the direction they wanted his recollection of the night’s events to go.
Lee followed up the defense’s cross-examination by asking Arciszewski whether police planted in his mind the account that he testified to Wednesday.
“It’s the things I remember,” he said, adding that he did not remember his first statement to police. “I’ll never forget that night, but it’s just the little details that make it hard.”
Arciszewski also stated that he told the truth Wednesday and that he tried his best with his testimony after being questioning by the state.
The trial continues at 9 p.m. today at the Lee County Justice Center in downtown Fort Myers before 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese.
Assistant State Attorney Marie Doerr is also prosecuting the case, and David A. Brener is serving as co-counsel for the defense.