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State v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Nebraska

May 15, 2015


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Appeal from the District Court for Cheyenne County: DEREK C. WEIMER, Judge. Affirmed.

James R. Mowbray and Kelly S. Breen, of Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, for appellant.

Jon Bruning, Attorney General, and Erin E. Tangeman for appellee.




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[290 Neb. 865] I. SUMMARY

A jury convicted the appellant, Craig Anthony Johnson, of first degree murder, use of a weapon to commit a felony, and possession of a deadly weapon by a prohibited person. The court sentenced him to prison terms of, respectively, life, 40 to 50 years, and 10 to 20 years, with all terms to be served consecutively.

On appeal, Johnson argues that the court erred in (1) admitting evidence of inconclusive DNA testing results; (2) overruling his Batson [1] challenge to the State's use of a peremptory strike against the only African-American prospective juror; and (3) admitting cumulative, gruesome autopsy photographs.

We conclude that Johnson has waived any claimed error regarding the photographs and that the court did not err in overruling his Batson challenge. We conclude, however, that the court improperly admitted irrelevant DNA testing results. But because we also conclude that the evidentiary error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, we affirm Johnson's convictions.


In the spring of 2011, April Smith separated from her husband, Edward Smith (Ed), and began dating Johnson. At some point, Johnson began working near Sidney, Nebraska, at a pipe distributor for oil rig operations. April managed a convenience store near the distributor and lived in a duplex within eyesight of the store. Johnson moved in with April about the end of the summer. But April continued to maintain a close relationship with Ed, and Ed continued to help her with some financial [290 Neb. 866] obligations and the maintenance of her white van, which they jointly owned.

For Thanksgiving 2011, April invited Ed to have dinner with herself, Johnson, and April's nephew and his family. Just before Thanksgiving, Johnson told a coworker that he was upset that April had invited Ed and that he would kill her if she ever left him to go back to Ed. During the Thanksgiving gathering, Ed refused Johnson's offer to repair April's van.

On Saturday morning, December 10, 2011, Ed went to April's duplex and took her van to repair the brakes. He returned it around noon. Ed was a truckdriver and left shortly after returning the van to go to Texas.

Johnson worked on Saturday morning. His supervisor said that Johnson asked to leave work early because he heard that Ed was going to April's house. She said that Johnson frequently mentioned meetings between April and Ed and was upset and jealous about their relationship. On Saturday morning, he told his supervisor that if he ever caught them together, he would " beat the shit out of both of them." His supervisor advised him to leave if he was unhappy, and he apologized for his remark. On Saturday afternoon, Johnson called a coworker and asked whether he could come over because he and April were fighting, but the coworker had plans to leave town.

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Later that evening, April's nephew, his wife, and their children went to visit April at her duplex. Robert Gray, April's nephew, said that Johnson was drinking beer and was unusually quiet most of the evening. Robert and his wife both said that Johnson was upset about other men flirting with April at the convenience store and about Ed's repairing the brakes on April's van. Robert's wife described Johnson's demeanor as angry and said that his and April's interactions were tense; they went into the kitchen to talk privately a couple of times during the evening. Just before Robert and his family left around midnight, April and Johnson had started to argue. April's neighbors reported hearing loud voices and arguing around 1 or 2 a.m. They recognized Johnson's voice from previous fights between April and Johnson when they had tried to intervene. A neighbor in the adjacent duplex said that the [290 Neb. 867] arguing continued for 30 to 45 minutes and that she heard " a couple of thuds."

On Sunday morning, December 11, 2011, April's employer saw her white van in front of her duplex while he was at the convenience store. At about 11:50 a.m., a sheriff's officer was at the convenience store to respond to an alarm that had gone off. While he was checking the outside of the building, Johnson pulled up in April's van. Johnson said that his girlfriend was the manager and that they had received a call from the alarm company. He told the officer that his girlfriend was having back problems and preparing to resign her position. Johnson opened the door with a key and deactivated the alarm.

Meanwhile, Robert and his wife tried to call April about 11 a.m. and noon on Sunday, but she did not answer or return their calls, which was unusual. They went to April's duplex a couple of times that afternoon, but the van was gone, she did not respond to knocks, the blinds were closed, and the deadbolt was locked, which was also unusual. Johnson's pickup was parked in front of the duplex. They returned to April's duplex that night but could not see inside. About 8:45 p.m., a security camera filmed Johnson while he was purchasing gas for a white van in Chapman, Nebraska, which is about 3 hours 45 minutes from Sidney.

On Monday morning, December 12, 2011, Robert and his wife contacted the sheriff's department. April's employer had also contacted the office when she did not show up for work. Johnson had requested time off in advance for a doctor's appointment.

At about 8 a.m. on Monday, two officers went to the duplex to check on April. When she did not answer their knocks, the officers spoke to people who might know where she was and learned that Johnson had taken the day off. They eventually broke into the duplex and found April's body lying face down in the living room. A chief deputy sheriff believed she had been dead for quite a while from the appearance of her body. The officers could see that her hands and feet were tied, and there was blood on the couch beside her and on her arms and legs. After determining that April was dead, the sheriff's [290 Neb. 868] officers secured the duplex until State Patrol investigators could help.

A witness testified that while he was at a gas station in Brooklyn, Iowa, on Tuesday, December 13, 2011, a driver in a white van--whom he identified as Johnson--asked him for money to pay for gas. The van had South Dakota plates on it, even though Johnson had said he was from Sterling, Nebraska. Johnson was emotional and told the witness that he was having relationship problems and trying to get to a job in Illinois.

Two days later, on December 15, 2011, a sheriff's officer in Jackson County, Michigan,

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pulled over April's white van with South Dakota license plates for a traffic violation. Johnson was driving the van. But when the officer got out of his vehicle, Johnson accelerated back into traffic. A high-speed chase ensued, which ended when other officers set up " stop sticks" to puncture the van's tires. Johnson initially refused to get out, so the officers arrested and handcuffed him. The arresting officer found the van's Nebraska license plates inside and learned that it was stolen from the scene of a homicide, but he did not say this to Johnson. The South Dakota plates did not match the van's vehicle identification number. Later, while the officer was booking Johnson, he blurted out, " 'What do you want from me I'm wanted for murder.'"

When Nebraska investigators learned that Michigan officers had arrested Johnson, they went to Michigan to bring Johnson back to Nebraska. They also obtained a search warrant to photograph his body and obtain fingernail scrapings. The photographs did not show any injuries. But when they attempted to scrape his right-hand fingernails, Johnson became confrontational and began to dig at his right-hand nails, discarding the debris on the floor, until the officers could restrain him. The deputy sheriff could not obtain scrapings from his right hand. The scrapings he obtained from Johnson's left hand tested negative for the presence of blood, and DNA testing showed nothing of evidentiary value.

During the return trip to Nebraska, Johnson told a Nebraska investigator that he had planned to see an old friend in [290 Neb. 869] Michigan and then turn himself in. Later, he said that " dope would play a role in the investigation."

When the Nebraska investigators searched the van, they found Johnson's T-shirt and athletic shoes with dark stains that they believed to be blood. The stains on both the T-shirt and shoes tested positive for blood, and the DNA profile extracted from these stains matched April's profile. The investigators traced the South Dakota license plates to a vehicle in a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, salvage yard.

1. Jury Selection

During jury selection, the State used one of its peremptory challenges to strike juror No. 8. In a juror questionnaire, she listed her race or ethnicity as African-American and Hispanic Latino. Johnson is African-American, and juror No. 8 was the only minority represented in the jury pool. The defense challenged the strike in a side bar.

During an in camera discussion, the prosecutor explained that the juror had indicated on her questionnaire that she was acquainted with April because April was a customer at a pharmacy where the juror worked. The prosecutor believed that the juror could have knowledge related to April's use of drugs-evidence that the ...

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