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Judge rejects speedy trial claim in Harris County ‘well case’

HAMILTON, Ga. -- The judge presiding over the Harris County “well case” has declined to throw out murder charges against a man who has awaited trial for more than eight years, blaming a large chunk of the almost unheard of delays on a revolving door of defense attorneys he says dragged their feet through pre-trial proceedings.

Alexander M. Johnson, one of three brothers charged in the cold-case kidnapping and killing of Alkenyatta Wilson, has been waiting for his day in court since February 2004. He claimed the delays have unfairly prejudiced his case and violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

But Chief Superior Court Judge John D. Allen ruled this month that Johnson waited too long to assert that right and was “disingenuous” to engage continuously in plea negotiations and at the same time claim “this time and effort caused a violation” of his rights. Allen attributed early delays to the involvement of Johnson’s former defense attorney, Gary Parker, in the time-consuming case of Brian G. Nichols, the man convicted in 2008 of a murder spree at the Fulton County courthouse.

“Waiting this long to raise this claim for the first time should be weighed heavily against the defendant,” Allen wrote, noting hearings years into the case in which the defense made no mention of speedy trial concerns. “This court finds that a significant amount of the delay in this case is due to the conduct of the defense and not the prosecution, including medical leaves, the Nichols case, and internal conflicts created by counsel.”

Allen has scheduled Johnson’s trial for April 16, but the case could be further delayed if Johnson’s defense attorney, David Todd Wooten, appeals the order to the Georgia Supreme Court. Wooten, in a phone interview Friday, said he disagreed with the ruling, adding Allen “missed the point” of his motion.

“Alex did nothing to stop hearings from being scheduled,” Wooten said. “The point he was trying to show was, not only do I have to deal with the anxiety of being incarcerated, I’ve got to deal with my family breaking up. I’ve got to deal with my kids growing up and I don’t even get to see them.”

Johnson and his brothers, Roderick R. Johnson and Raymon N. Walton, were jailed in 2004 after Wilson’s remains were found 40 feet down an abandoned well off Highway 208 near the Harris-Talbot County line. Prosecutors say the men kidnapped Wilson, a 27-year-old mobile home salesman in Opelika, Ala., beat him, tied him up and threw him down the well because he planned to testify against Roderick Johnson in a theft case in Lee County.

Walton was convicted of murder last September and sentenced to consecutive life sentences.

The brothers allegedly sought to conceal the slaying by having Wilson’s truck buried in Talbot County. Testimony at Walton’s trial suggested that Wilson may have suffered for an extended period of time after he was discarded in the well.

The pace of the proceedings has been slow from the beginning, which Allen suggested might be expected in a complicated cold case that involved multiple crime scenes and law enforcement agencies. All three defendants also initially faced the death penalty.

Alexander Johnson was not arraigned until more than three years after his arrest, but the judge noted his defense attorneys didn’t voice concerns about delays in the battery of motions they filed at that time.

In his ruling, Allen also had unflattering words for one of the previous judges under whom the proceedings had long languished. The late Robert G. Johnston III presided over the case before resigning in 2010 amid a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation; his successor on the case, Judge Doug Pullen, did the same last year.

“There were times when hearings were scheduled and removed from the calendar, and at least on one occasion Judge Johnston simply failed to appear in court although all other parties were present,” Allen wrote, noting both of the JQC investigations in his ruling. “There was also evidence that Judge Johnston even started certain proceedings and abruptly ended them because he had other matters to attend.”

Roderick Johnson, the only brother who still faces a possible death penalty, filed a similar motion to dismiss his indictment, citing the same procedural delays. Pullen, in one of his last rulings from the bench, denied that motion for many of the same reasons cited by Allen.

Walton, meanwhile, waived his speedy trial claims in exchange for prosecutors dropping their pursuit of the death penalty. Richard C. Hagler, the Columbus defense attorney who represents Roderick Johnson, has said he’s never encountered another case delayed this long.

“Nobody should have to sit there and wait this long to come to trial in this country,” he said last year after his client’s speedy trial claim was denied. “That’s like something you read about and don’t believe behind the Iron Curtain.”