The California Supreme Court Thursday upheld a death sentence for a convicted double murderer who was barred from being in a Los Angeles County courtroom for his trial after he attacked his defense attorney as jury selection was beginning in his case.
The state’s highest court unanimously rejected the defense’s contention that Cedric Jerome Johnson had been denied his day in court because a Los Angeles Superior Court judge barred him from attending his trial, in which he was charged with the September 1996 shooting deaths of Gregory Hightower and Lawrence Faggins in Watts.
In a 77-page ruling written by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, the court noted that Johnson “suddenly and violently attacked” his attorney, Steven K. Hauser, “in full view of hundreds of witnesses” by striking him in the head as the jury selection process was beginning in September 1998 in his retrial after the first jury to hear the case against him deadlocked on the charges. The defendant had also “unleashed profanity-laced tirades and accusations of racism against a number of different judges,” along with repeatedly spitting on his attorney and threatening to kill his family, according to the ruling.
“At various points, the judges presiding over the proceedings expressed concern that defendant sought to inject error into the trial through his disruptive behavior. Not surprisingly, defendant now alleges error arising from the trial court’s efforts to manage his behavior, including the decision to bar him from trial and the finding that he forfeited his right to testify. What we conclude is that defendant’s repeated efforts to compromise the integrity of a capital trial were unsuccessful. In each instance where the trial court made decisions challenged by the defendant, the court acted within the permissible scope of its discretion,” Cuellar wrote, with the rest of the panel concurring.
Johnson was wearing a remotely activated stun belt under his clothing at the time of the attack on his attorney in a jury assembly room where both sides had gathered with prospective jurors, and was able to launch a second attack on his attorneys before sheriff’s deputies ultimately managed to subdue the defendant, whose stun belt appeared not to work, according to the ruling.
Johnson subsequently said he said did not want to listen to his trial and disrupted court proceedings by banging on the door of a courthouse lockup cell, the justices noted.
His appellate attorneys argued in an appellate brief that the case was “like no other.”
“For the first time in the history of this country, a capital defendant was tried in absentia from jury selection through penalty verdict — the jury found the defendant guilty and returned a verdict of death without ever seeing or hearing from the defendant, and without the defendant ever seeing the jurors or confronting a single witness,” the appellate attorneys wrote in a court filing.
But the California Supreme Court found that the exclusion of a defendant from a death penalty trial was “unusual, but not unprecedented.”
“We have previously upheld death judgments where the trial court excluded the defendant from part or most of a trial because of the defendant’s disruption of proceedings,” the panel found, noting that Johnson had “refused daily invitations to listen to the proceedings” and “demonstrated his unwillingness to conform to courtroom decorum by his continued misbehavior.”
Hightower — who had worked for Congressman Maxine Waters, opened up his own business and helped to create a truce between gangs after the 1992 riots — was shot to death along with Faggins after the two left a party about the same time, according to the ruling, which noted that Faggins had reportedly “snitched” on someone and had been warned while at the party that he was in danger, according to the ruling.
Co-defendant Terry Betton — who was charged along with Johnson in the killings — was sentenced to 89 years to life in state prison after being convicted of Faggins’ slaying. Jurors deadlocked on the murder charge against him involving Hightower, which was eventually dismissed, according to court papers.