At one in the morning, after watching a movie at a friend’s house, 20-year-old Sabina Rose O’Donnell borrowed a bicycle to ride to her north Philadelphia apartment a few blocks away. She never made it home. Later that day, June 2, 2…
According to video-tapes from neighborhood surveillance cameras, police were able to place 18-year-old Donte Johnson in the area at the time of the murder. After two Philadelphia officers arrested Johnson on June 10, 2010, he admitted biking around the neighborhood that night, but denied any knowledge of the murder. His interrogators explained to him how DNA analysis of his sperm could link him the the dead woman's body. Upon hearing this, Johnson said he and the victim had consensual sex two days before her death. When the detectives questioned that story, Johnson tried another way of neutralizing the DNA evidence: he said that after stumbling across her body, he had masturbated over the corpse. The interrogators explained that this didn't explain away the bloody undershirt. At this point, Johnson confessed to the rape and murder.
Assistant District Attorney Richard Sax charged Donte Johnson with first-degree murder, rape, and robbery. Soon after Johnson's court-appointed defense attorneys entered the case, the suspect took back his confession, and turned down a negotiated guilty plea. The defense challenged the reliability of the DNA evidence linking Johnson to the body and the murder site, and made the argument that the prosecution couldn't use his recanted confession. Johnson was now claiming that at the time of Sabina Rose O'Donnell's rape and murder, he was at home with his family.
At a pre-trial hearing on April 30, 2012 to determine if the prosecution could introduce Johnson's confession, defense attorney Gary Server put a private forensic neuropsychologist on the stand. Dr. Gerald Cooke testified that Johnson, with a damaged brain and an IQ of 73, had the mental capacity of an 11-year-old. Because the suspect was almost retarded, his interrogators could have easily manipulated him into confessing to a crime he didn't commit. (So what's the solution to this? Using stupid interrogators to make things fair?)
In arguing for the exclusion of Johnson's confession, attorney Server said, "The detective speaks to Mr. Johnson and he thinks he's talking to an adult, when in reality he's speaking to a child." The defense attorney also noted that when questioned by the police, his client had been drunk and high on drugs.
The police officers who had arrested Johnson took the stand and testified that the suspect, sober and coherent, knew exactly what was going on when they took him into custody. According to the police officers, Johnson did not act or speak like an 11-year-old child. The judge, after hearing both sides of the argument, ruled that the prosecutor could introduce Johnson's confession at his trial. The defense attorneys could make the false confession claim to the jury.
On May 1, 2012, after opening statements to the jury from both sides, the prosecutor presented the state's case. Surveillance cameras placed the defendant in the vicinity that night, Johnson had confessed to the rape and murder, and DNA linked him to the bloody shirt and the victim's body. From a prosecutor's point of view, as murder cases go, this was about as good as it gets.
By comparison, the defense--that DNA analysts made mistakes, the confession was false, and Johnson's family said he was at home with them that night--was weak.
To convince the jury that police interrogators had taken advantage of Johnson's feeble mind to wrangle a false confession out of him, the defense showed the video-taped testimony of the neuropsychologist, Dr. Gerald Cooke. According to Dr. Cooke--who earned $9,300 for his I.Q. testing and testimony--Donte Johnson has trouble solving problems, reasoning, and thinking quickly. His mother had given birth to Donte when she was 16; early in his youth he had suffered some kind of brain damage; and since turning 14, he has been using drugs and binge drinking. According to the psychologist, this simpleton never held a job, and had sex with scores of women. (Great.)
Donte Johnson's attorneys chose not to put their client on the stand. Perhaps they didn't want to risk a witness box confession like in one of those old Perry Mason TV episodes. Moreover, having tried to make the jurors feel sorry for the defendant, the attorneys wanted to keep him under wraps. Following the closing arguments, and the judge's instructions, the case went to the jury.
Jurors, after deliberating four hours, found Donte Johnson guilty of first degree-murder and rape. The judge sentenced him to life plus 40 to 80 years. In speaking to the judge after receiving his sentence, Johnson said, "How can you clearly say I did anything? If I did something I would take responsibility."
If stupidity ever becomes a successful criminal defense, our prisons will be half empty.