Penalty phase in Johston trial under way
Opening statements were heard this morning in the penalty phase of the double murder trial of Kemar Johnston.
Johnston, 23, faces life in prison without parole or death in connection to the October 2006 torture and slaying of Alexis Sosa, 18, and his 14-year-old nephew, Jeffrey Sosa. He was found guilty Jan. 30 by two counts each of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
The penalty phase began today with statements from the prosecution and defense. The same 12-member jury that handed down the guilty verdict listened as Assistant State Attorney Bob Lee and defense attorney David A. Brener outlined the basis for leaning one way or the other in regards to recommending a sentence.
Twentieth Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese will make the final ruling on Johnston’s sentence, but he will give great weight to the jury’s recommendation.
Lee argued in his opening statement that the aggravating factors in the case support the jury recommending the death sentence. He pointed to Johnston’s conviction of a capital felony in the death of each Sosa, and that the felonies were committed during a kidnapping, in a heinous, atrocious and cruel manner, and in a cold, calculated premeditated manner.
“We’re looking at things that make the crimes more aggravating,” Lee said.
He told the jury to consider both mercy and justice.
“Follow the law, follow the evidence and hold the defendant personally responsible for that night, when a celebration of life because a celebration of death,” Lee said.
Brener argued in his opening statements that a person can be convicted of felony murder by being a principal and is then eligible for the death penalty, but he questioned whether a person guilty of felony murder should receive death. He pointed to the testimony from witnesses, noted that the “cruelty was not solely done at the actions of Mr. Johnston,” and said Johnston “thinks like a child” and was unable to plan the murders.
Brener said the combination of drugs and extreme intoxication, his client’s brain damage and low IQ and the peer pressure and mob mentality the night of the murders created the “perfect storm.”
“Together these three things created a setting for these things to occur,” he said.
“I will ask you not to abandon Kemar. I will tell you his life is worth saving,” Brener told the jury. “I will beg you to spare that life because I will argue it is worth saving … This young man is worth saving and is deserving of your mercy and compassion.”
Following opening statements, the state called to the stand the doctor from the District 21 Medical Examiner’s Office who performed the autopsies on the Sosas. He testified to the wounds on the bodies, whether the Sosas could have been conscious at the time and if they would have been in pain had they been conscious.
Under cross-examination from Brener, the doctor admitted that he could not determine the order of the wounds — fatal and non-fatal, who fired the bullets nor whether the two were conscious when the wounds occurred.
The state rested and the defense called to the stand its first witness, Johnston’s old employer. Lisa Dilgard, general manager at Rib City, testified to Johnston’s job duties and his character as an employee. She said he would walk her to her car at night as a safety precaution though he had already clocked out and added that his execution would be “very upsetting.”
The defense then called to the stand Johnston’s second cousin from Jamaica. She testified to the poor living conditions Johnston grew up in, how his mother abandoned her children to work and how Johnston and his siblings had to steal food from a relative to eat. She also testified to seeing chemicals sprayed on marijuana plants in Jamaica by planes and how Johnston would have had contact with the chemicals as a child.
She remained on the stand when court recessed for lunch.
The Sosas were hog-tied, beaten and tortured at a Cape Coral duplex during a birthday party for Johnston. They were then driven to an industrial park in the north Cape, where they were fatally shot and Alexis’ body was placed in the truck of a car and set on fire. Emergency units responding to a call about a possible fire discovered the car in flames and Jeffrey’s body lying nearby.
Johnston was one of 10 people arrested and charged in connection to the murders.