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State of New Jersey v. Donald George Johnson

October 15, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
DONALD GEORGE JOHNSON, A/K/A DONALD G. JOHNSON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Indictment No. 06-08-0768.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 31, 2012

Before Judges Cuff and St. John.

Defendant and co-defendants Elijah Trammell and Michael Britton were indicted by a Union County grand jury under Indictment No. 06-08-0768 for first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and/or (2) (count one); first-degree conspiracy to commit murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a) and N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 (count two); third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5 (count three); and second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4 (count four). The charges arose from the shooting of a man in Plainfield. Britton's trial was severed from defendant's. Trammell entered into a plea agreement with the State and testified against defendant. Trammell's testimony provided the bulk of the substantive, credible, and incriminatory evidence against defendant.

Defendant was tried by a jury over twelve days in January 2009. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts as charged, with the exception of the murder count, for which defendant was found guilty of the lesser-included offense of first-degree aggravated manslaughter.

The trial judge sentenced defendant to twenty-five years imprisonment on count one, with an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility pursuant to the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, and a consecutive term of five years imprisonment with one year of parole ineligibility on count three. Counts two and four were merged into count one. The appropriate fees, assessments, and penalties were also imposed.

I.

The trial record reveals that on March 14, 2006, Tyrell Brighton, William Brevard, and Robert Codeys were walking home along Liberty Street in Plainfield. As they got to the railroad trestle, shots were heard and they dropped to the sidewalk. When they got up, they saw that Codeys had been shot. There was blood streaming from his head and he was not breathing. A car sped away. Initially they did not identify the shooter.

Several days later, Brevard and Brighton went to the police and stated that they had seen Hakeem Robinson shoot their friend. Subsequently, they admitted that this was a lie and that neither had seen the person who shot Codeys. Before the men recanted, the police undertook an investigation and spoke to Rotania Grenald who provided an alibi for Robinson. She did, however, tell the police that at approximately the same time as the shooting she received a call from Trammell. He left a message on her telephone telling her to inform Robinson to get off the streets since there had been a shooting on Liberty Street and there might be some retaliation.

Trammell was questioned and charged with the murder of Codeys. As a result of a plea bargain, he agreed to testify against defendant. Trammell was a close friend of Michael Britton and knew defendant.

They all socialize together in the Clinton Avenue neighborhood in Plainfield. Trammell admitted that the Clinton Avenue group, known as the "Clinton Avenue Posse," did not get along with the group who lived in the neighborhood around Liberty Avenue, known as the "Lib Side" gang.

On March 14, Trammell attended a memorial service for Leonard James, a friend who had died a year earlier. Defendant was at the service and had a small automatic weapon in his pocket. Trammell stated that Britton and his twin brother, Mitchell, got into defendant's car, with Britton driving. After dropping off Mitchell, they continued toward Liberty Village, a housing development on Liberty Street. Trammell stated that defendant said, "[i]f we see any niggers outside we going to get on 'em."

As defendant's car pulled onto Fifth Street, defendant pulled out a small gun, reached across Britton, and fired at a white Cadillac known to belong to someone in the Liberty Street group. They pulled onto Liberty Street at which point defendant instructed Britton to slow down. Defendant then pulled a different gun from under the seat and fired out the window several times in the direction of the railroad trestle. Trammell saw someone lying on the ground and also saw defendant throw the gun out the window. Much of Trammell's pretrial statement to police was not consistent with his trial testimony, but ultimately he implicated defendant in the murder of Codeys.

Marcus Jackson and Mitchell Britton each testified at defendant's trial. Jackson stated that he saw defendant at the memorial and saw him reach for his waistband. However, in his statement to police, he stated that he saw a gun and heard defendant state, "you know what time it is." Jackson disavowed this statement at trial. Mitchell Britton stated that he did not see defendant with a gun and never heard the statement "you know what time it is." Mitchell also denied getting into defendant's car that night.

In addition to the testimony of these witnesses, the State offered testimony concerning defendant's behavior in the ensuing weeks after the murder. On March 31, the police arrived at the home of Lauren Jackson, defendant's girlfriend. They seized her gold Dodge Intrepid, explaining there had been an "altercation," possibly involving her car. She learned that defendant was a suspect in a murder. Shortly after the car was seized, Jackson spoke to defendant and told him about the car being seized. She did not have a clear recollection but she may have also told defendant about his murder arrest warrant.

On April 4, Eddie Lorenzo sold a car to defendant. According to Lorenzo, defendant, who gave the name Donovan Brass, came into his dealership and offered to purchase a car for $1900 in cash. Because the individual had no driver's license or insurance, Lorenzo refused. Defendant left and returned with a copy of Jackson's ...


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