INDIANAPOLIS — When it comes to the appeal for a man convicted of a double homicide in Ligonier, deputies from the Indiana Attorney General’s office are contesting all five points of the appeal, stating a Noble County judge handled the case correctly.
Michael J. Johnson, who was convicted on charges of murder, felony murder and attempted murder in the March 5, 2018, shooting at Riverside Villa Apartments, is appealing his conviction and sentence. He’s currently serving a 170-year sentence after being found guilty on all charges at a jury trial in December.
Johnson’s appeal raised five points: whether the court erred in letting an Indiana State Police detective refer to notes that weren’t part of evidentiary discovery; whether there was sufficient evidence to convict Johnson of murder; whether there was sufficient evidence to determine him a habitual offender; whether his 170-year sentence was appropriate; and whether there was evidence to order him to pay restitution for damage to the apartment complex where the shooting occurred.
The Indiana Attorney General’s Office responded in the appeal on July 3. In its simplest form, the state’s response offers rejections to all five points and defends the decisions made by Noble County Superior Court 1 Judge Robert Kirsch and jurors at trial.
On March 5, 2018, Johnson drove to Ligonier from Fort Wayne with two women in order to retrieve a black Prada purse that was taken out of his car while one of those women was driving it earlier in the day.
They went to the Riverside Villa Apartments complex and upon entering an apartment, Johnson pulled out his handgun and demanded the purse be returned.
One of the people in the apartment, Justin Adams, bolted for the back door. He jumped over a porch railing and down to the sidewalk and while he was running away, Johnson fired and struck Adams in the back, killing him.
Johnson then turned back inside the apartment and shot Amanda Feldstein in the back of the head in the living room. He fired a third shot at, but missed, another woman in the kitchen, Amberly Brown.
After fleeing the apartment with the two women, the trio got lost and ended up at a gas station in Middlebury. They found their way to U.S. 20 and began heading back to Fort Wayne, but Johnson’s vehicle was spotted by a LaGrange Police Department officer, who began a high-speed pursuit that ended across the Steuben County line after Johnson hit Stop Sticks that damaged his tires.
At a four-day jury trial in December, Johnson was convicted on all five counts he faced — two counts of felony murder, two counts of murder and one Level 1 felony count of attempted murder. He was also found guilty of being a habitual offender, adding an additional sentence enhancement.
At sentencing, the felony murder charges were merged with the murder charges and Johnson was given a total sentence of 170 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $2,413.71 to the apartment complex for damage caused to the building during the shooting.
The 49-page brief filed by Deputy Attorney General Courtney Staton attempts to strike down all of Johnson’s arguments.
In response to the issue over the appeal of testimony by Indiana State Police crime scene investigator Michael Biggs, Staton offers several layers of argument — Johnson waived his right to appeal on this issue, the state didn’t commit discovery violations, Biggs’ notes weren’t covered by local court rules regardless, the defendant wasn’t entitled to get the testimony stricken even if the rules were violated and that the judge was within his discretion to allow the testimony anyway.
And, even then, if an error was committed, it didn’t prejudice the case.
“However, if this Court finds that the evidence called for speculation, any error in its admission was harmless because it was cumulative to evidence properly in front of the jury and because the evidence of Defendant’s guilt was overwhelming,” Staton wrote.
As to the murder conviction, Staton states jurors had enough information to determine that Johnson knowingly and intentionally killed the two victims. Jurors had instructions and options to consider lesser charges if they felt the events didn’t fit the charge of murder, but were able to reasonably decide the evidence did fit the definition of murder.
“As the jury was properly instructed on the tendered lesser included offenses of voluntary manslaughter, attempted voluntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, and sudden heat, it is obvious that the jury found that the State had provided sufficient evidence to rebut Defendant’s claim,” the brief states.
Johnson’s appeal that the 170-year sentence doesn’t fit the crime should also not be supported, Staton argues, based on the details of the case and Johnson’s extensive criminal history.
“Adams was killed as he attempted to flee. Feldstein was killed as she attempted to shield herself from harm. The nature of the offense in this case is egregious,” Staton wrote. “Moreover, Defendant’s character does not support a reduced sentence. At the time of his sentencing, Defendant had accumulated one misdemeanor and seven felony convictions. His criminal history had escalated in severity and violence culminating in the current offenses.”
In the two other points, the state argues that prosecutors had presented sufficient evidence to prove that Johnson is a habitual offender and that the court did not abuse its discretion in ordering restitution to the apartment complex for damages, including that defense attorneys did not raise an objection to the order at the time.
Johnson’s attorney will be filing a response to the state’s brief. The court granted an extension of time to file that response, with a deadline set for July 30.
A three-judge panel of appellate judges will ultimately weigh the issues raised by both sides and issue an opinion on each of the five points in the appeal.
There is no set timeline for judges to rule, although criminal appeals are typically resolved in one or two months after briefs are filed.