INDIANAPOLIS — An appeal filed by Michael J. Johnson, the man convicted of two murders and attempted murder in the March 5, 2018, shooting at a Ligonier apartment complex, raised five issues about his conviction and sentence and ultimately asked for a new trial in his case.
Those issues include 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 56-page document submitted to the Indiana Court of Appeals Friday outlines the arguments Johnson’s attorney Kimberly Jackson filed on his behalf.
Appeals court judges will now review the brief and the court record and make a determination on each of the five issues. That process can take months to resolve before the court issues its opinion.
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.
Johnson’s brief seeks for the Court of Appeals to reverse his convictions and send the case back to Noble County for a new trial.
Failing that, the brief requests that his murder convictions be reduced to voluntary manslaughter and attempted voluntary manslaughter, vacate the habitual offender designation and restitution amount and reduce his sentence to 70 years.
The first issue raised in the appeal regards the testimony of Indiana State Police crime scene investigator Michael Biggs. During trial, defense attorneys pressed an objection about Biggs’ use of handwritten notes he had made at the scene, because those notes had not been turned over as part of discovery materials both sides were supposed to have access to.
At trial, prosecutors argued the notes were integrated into a full report of the apartment scene and shooting and therefore, had been included in evidentiary materials.
Jackson raises issues with admission of those notes, but also with Biggs’ testimony.
“Biggs admitted he was not a ballistics expert but nevertheless offered speculative testimony, over defense objections, on critical ballistics issues. The admission of such evidence was extremely prejudicial to Johnson,” the brief states.
Jackson argues that Biggs’ notes and testimony were used by the state to establish “proof of specific intent to kill.” Since Johnson’s defense was prepared on a “lack of specific intent to kill,” he was denied a fair trial by omission of materials.
Because of that, Jackson requests the appeals court vacate the convictions and order a new trial.
“Johnson respectfully requests this Court find the trial court erroneously failed to exclude Bigg’s testimony, reverse Johnson’s convictions, and remand for a new trial,” the brief states.
As for Biggs’ ballistics testimony, Jackson simultaneously argues that it unfairly led the jury to a conviction for murder by establishing Johnson’s intent to kill. If that testimony had been struck, the jury would have come to a different conclusion, she argues.
“Biggs’ testimony was critical to the very issue the jury was to decide: whether Johnson’s shots were calculated and, therefore, the product of his specific intent to kill or whether those shots were the product of surprise and rage and, therefore, fired while under sudden heat,” the brief states. “... the jury reasonably would have returned verdicts for Voluntary Manslaughter and Attempted Voluntary Manslaughter.”
In the second argument, Jackson appeals that jurors had sufficient evidence to return a conviction on murder as opposed to voluntary manslaughter.
The appeal continues the narrative of Johnson’s defense at trial, that he was spooked in a chaotic situation and shot in “sudden heat,” a legal term for acting in passion, surprise or anger that is a key statutory component of a voluntary manslaughter charge.
The brief notes that Adams “came flying out” of the room toward Johnson — but does not mention that Adams was only shot after escaping out the back door, jumping a railing and then running several yards away on a lower sidewalk before he was hit in the back — and that Feldstein “abruptly ran from a bedroom and faced Johnson, with something in her hand” — again, not taking into account testimony from witnesses that said she was crouched and cowering or a medical examination evidence that indicates she was shot in the back of the head.
“As the State failed to negate this evidence of sudden heat beyond a reasonable doubt, Johnson respectfully request this court reverse his convictions for Murder and Attempted Murder and order entry in their place convictions for Voluntary Manslaughter and Attempted Voluntary Manslaughter,” the brief states.
In the third point, the appeal asks to vacate the habitual offender status, which ultimately added 15 years to his total sentence.
During the habitual offender hearing before Noble Superior Court 1 Judge Robert Kirsch following the jury’s guilty verdicts, a Fort Wayne Police Department detective indicated he had no independent memory of a robbery case from 2009 in which Johnson was convicted, but identified him through photographs provided by the prosecution.
Prosecutors did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that Johnson in the courtroom was the same man as Michael Johnson convicted in previous offenses.
“Accordingly, the habitual offender finding and enhancement should be reversed,” the brief states.
Argument four questions the 170-year sentence “in light of the nature of the offense and the character of the offender.”
The brief recounts his past criminal history, troubled childhood and adult life in making an argument the sentence was unduly harsh. Jackson also raises a case in which a 60-year sentence was given in a case of murder and feticide where a woman and 29-week-old fetus were killed as a means of comparison.
“An enhanced sentence of 60 years for Murder, to be served concurrently with the sentences on the other two counts, enhanced by 10 years as a result of the habitual offender finding, is consistent with the nature of the offense and the character of the offender,” the brief states.
The final points questions an evidentiary backing for ordering Johnson to pay restitution to the apartment complex.
Although prosecutors requested the restitution in sentencing documents and received the judgment “the record does not reveal the actual expenses incurred by Riverside Villa, as is required for a valid restitution order.”
A three-judge panel will now take up the appeal.
Although there are no specific deadlines for the court to rule, opinions in criminal appeals typically are released within one to two months of the brief being submitted.