UPDATE:A jury Friday found Michael Jerome “Big Smoove” Johnson guilty of the Nov. 15, 2011 murder of Gold & Silver Trading Center Manager Steve Toms.
In delivering its verdict after a late-night court session that went on until 10:30 p.m., the jury also found Johnson and codefendant Dimitrius Morris “Slim Deezy” Gordon guilty of multiple counts of armed robbery, kidnapping and assault related to armed robberies in 2012.
Judge William Rumer set their sentencing for 3:30 p.m. June 29.
Jurors began deliberating at 3:34 p.m. and were reported to have reached a verdict at 10 p.m.
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Their discussions followed a full day of closing arguments in which defense attorneys told them the prosecution’s case was missing so many pieces of the puzzle that jurors must have a reasonable doubt as to the defendants’ guilt.
Prosecutors countered the jury had all the evidence needed to convict Johnson of robbing and killing Toms, and to convict both suspects in armed robberies of the 4227 Victory Drive Diamond Exchange on May 5, 2012, and the 5750 Milgen Road Winn-Dixie on April 11, 2012.
Included in that evidence were cellphone communications investigators used to track Johnson’s movement the day Toms died and to determine when Toms likely was killed.
They determined Toms was alive at 5:31 p.m. when he last sent his daughter a text. By tracing Johnson’s cellphone, they decided he was near the 3717 Gentian Blvd. Gold & Silver Trading Center between 5:02 and 5:36 p.m.
But Johnson’s call at 5:36 p.m. showed he already had left the cell tower coverage area nearest the jewelry shop and crossed into another coverage sector to the south. A call at 5:41 p.m. showed he was even farther south.
His attorney J. Mac Pilgrim questioned whether it was possible for Johnson to have robbed and killed a man so quickly.
“My client supposedly shot him and got out of there in five minutes,” Pilgrim said.
Prosecutor Jennifer Cooley presented a passionate, theatrical rebuttal, donning a black hooded jacket and using an unloaded pistol to act out how the robbery and shooting could have occurred, timing it at two minutes.
“Two minutes! Two minutes!” she yelled at the jury. She noted other robberies allegedly involving Johnson were similarly fast, around two or three minutes. No one was injured in those incidents because no one challenged the robbers, Cooley said. “The difference is Mr. Toms bucked up to him,” she said of Johnson.
A loaded, cocked revolver workers kept in the jewelry store was found on the floor by Toms’ body. The 63-year-old store manager was shot six times.
Cooley cited other evidence tying Johnson to the crime. Though he said he’d never been in the jewelry store, his left thumb print was found on its front glass door. “Why are your fingerprints at a location you’ve never been?” she asked.
For a detective, Johnson drew a crude map of the jewelry store’s interior, saying he got the information from his cousin Daequavian Solomon, whom Johnson said killed Toms. The drawing accurately showed the store’s cash register was on a counter to the left, Cooley noted.
She replayed for the jury recorded jail telephone calls from Jan. 10, 2013, when Johnson three times told an associate to pass a message to Gordon, with whom Johnson could not communicate because both were in jail.
Johnson wanted Gordon to tell police he picked Johnson up around 6 p.m. at a recording studio on University Avenue the day Toms was killed, and dropped Johnson off at his mother’s house on Somerset Avenue about 9 p.m. This would have explained why his cellphone showed he was near the Gold & Silver Trading Center that day.
“Why arrange an alibi if you haven’t done anything?” Cooley asked. She also pointed out that before ballistics tests showed what sort of gun likely killed Toms, Johnson told police it was a .45-caliber made by Springfield Arms, saying that’s what Solomon used. Springfield Arms was one of three brands a GBI firearms examiner said could have fired the fatal shots.
The gun was never recovered. Johnson told police Solomon threw it into the river, but divers found no weapon.
Pilgrim pointed out that on May 5, 2012, the day the Diamond Exchange was robbed, Phenix City police caught Solomon driving a stolen Lincoln LS with a .45-caliber handgun in it, but investigators never checked the weapon to see if it was used in the Toms homicide.
Detectives believe the Lincoln was used in the Diamond Exchange robbery, but they ruled Solomon out as a suspect after he told them he got the car from Johnson. Two witnesses corroborated that account, though their recollections of the day’s events differed.
Both Pilgrim and Jennifer Curry, Gordon’s defense attorney, argued Solomon and his companions were more promising suspects in the Diamond Exchange robbery than Johnson and Gordon. Curry also noted that according to witnesses’ accounts, one robber was tall and the other was shorter, possibly 5-foot-7. Though Johnson was the taller and stockier of the two defendants, Gordon is not short, Curry said. He’s 5-foot-11.
Pilgrim argued nothing taken from any of the robberies was ever traced to Johnson, including 36 guns stolen from the Diamond Exchange. Police later recovered six of those, but none came from Johnson.
The defense attorney repeatedly mentioned other leads in the Toms case that he said police failed to pursue. Detectives said those tips led to drug addicts who weren’t credible.
Prosecutor Al Whitaker said investigators aren’t obligated to keep chasing leads they decide are invalid. “Officers don’t have to chase a rabbit down a hole,” he said. “This is not ‘Alice in Wonderland.’”
Prosecutors also reminded jurors of the former codefendants who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the prosecution.
Sidney Person, Xavier Bell and Jockas Gilchrist each admitted joining in the April 11, 2012, robbery of the Milgen Road Winn-Dixie, and each said Johnson and Gordon were key players, with Johnson firing an AK-47 over the store manager’s head and ordering his accomplices to hurry up.
Jamar Warner, now jailed in an unrelated homicide case, testified he served as a lookout at the door as Johnson and Gordon robbed the Diamond Exchange, where Johnson again used an automatic rifle. Those incidents were among a string of armed robberies that included an April 2, 2012, attempted robbery of the Winn-Dixie at 1627 S. Lumpkin Road. Person, Bell, Gilchrist and Theodore Alexander pleaded guilty in that case.
The last case was an Aug. 22, 2012, armed robbery at the La Mexicana de Columbus restaurant and grocery at 3305 Victory Drive, which led to the arrests that day of Johnson, Gordon and Warner.
All pleaded guilty to that robbery, with Johnson sentenced to 20 years in prison and Gordon to 10 years. Warner served just one year before he was released in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation.