October 23, 2013

Murder charge against teen dismissed three years later

Rachel Brown

— Three years after a Carbondale teen was charged with strangling his grandmother to death, authorities now say it’s possible the woman wasn’t murdered at all.

District Attorney Bert Poston asked for the case to be dismissed against now-18-year-old Joshua Jaran Johnson in Juvenile Court in Whitfield County on Monday. Poston said that in his preparations for the trial he came across some evidence that showed Lorraine Frazier could have committed suicide. While he said the evidence isn’t strong enough to say for certain that’s how she died, he said it’s also not strong enough to say for sure that someone killed her.

“We asked the court to dismiss the petition,” Poston said.

Bob Johnson, who lives in the Atlanta area and said he is Joshua Johnson’s paternal grandfather, said the case has divided the family and caused his grandson to fall behind in school. He said Joshua Johnson lives in Augusta now. The good news, he said, is that the murder charge is no longer hanging over everyone’s head.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” Bob Johnson said. “I never thought he was guilty. From the beginning, I had to fight my family and the system. Many of my family members thought he was (guilty).”

Attempts to reach Joshua Johnson on Tuesday through messages passed on through his attorney and Bob Johnson were unsuccessful. Attorney L. David Wolfe, who has defended Johnson through the process, said his client is relieved. He praised the District Attorney’s Office for their willingness to re-examine the case.

“The District Attorney’s Office has some really fine lawyers there, and I’m very impressed with Mr. Poston who is willing to receive information and have candid discussions and make difficult decisions,” Wolfe said.

Poston said all signs initially pointed to murder. He said Joshua Johnson was the only one who lived in the house and was with his grandmother at or around the time she died. Then-15-year-old Joshua Johnson went to a neighbor’s home that day in September 2010 and coolly explained his grandmother was dead, Poston said. He said investigators later determined Johnson had previously made statements to other people about killing Frazier and collecting on an insurance policy.

Shortly after Johnson was charged, a family member told The Daily Citizen that Johnson and his grandmother had a good relationship and the family member didn’t believe the teen would have murdered her.

Joshua Johnson was 16 when when he pleaded not guilty in Whitfield County Superior Court. Then, in February of this year, a judge kicked the case down to Juvenile Court, saying prosecutors had taken too long to indict him as an adult while detaining him through an ankle monitor.

Poston, who succeeded Kermit McManus as district attorney in February 2012, said he had not had an opportunity to look at the cord around Frazier’s neck for himself until recently. The medical examiner who reviewed the case had previously said the case was a homicide, Poston said, and the examiner said he had never seen a suicide committed by someone holding a cord around their neck.

“If you just hold something around your neck and hold it tight, when you lose consciousness, it loosens up and you start breathing again,” Poston explained. “You only have a few seconds (after it’s sufficiently tightened) before you black out, and so you couldn’t tighten it up and tie a complicated knot while you’re losing consciousness. No one believed that you could physically do that.”

Poston said that as prosecutors recovered the physical evidence to prepare for a hearing in Juvenile Court, where the case was moved, he began to examine all the pieces. He looked at the pictures of the knot around Frazier’s neck and decided to see if he could recreate it. He did recreate it and determined it was a slip knot.

“So, you could put the cord around your neck, tie a slip knot in it, and then cinch it tight, and it would stay tight,” Poston said. “So it’s theoretically possible to commit suicide that way.”

Poston said it would be “very unlikely that she would have committed suicide that way, but it’s not impossible.” For him, that was enough of a reason to dismiss the murder charge against Johnson. “I don’t think the evidence is there to establish (homicide),” he said.

Bob Johnson said that’s quite a turnaround after investigators, including those from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, said earlier that they had “hard, concrete evidence” his grandson was guilty.

“The concrete evidence apparently has fallen through somewhere,” he said.