Killer thanks Columbus Pawn Shop murder witness for shooting him: ‘He saved me’

Man pleads guilty, sentenced for role in fatal 2017 shooting at Columbus Pawn Shop

Marquiell Wilson pleaded guilty Friday for his involvement in the fatal shooting in December 2017 of Joseph Howard Johnson III at the Columbus Pawn Shop on Fort Benning Road. After Wilson was sentenced, his attorney read a statement Wilson wrote.
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Marquiell Wilson pleaded guilty Friday for his involvement in the fatal shooting in December 2017 of Joseph Howard Johnson III at the Columbus Pawn Shop on Fort Benning Road. After Wilson was sentenced, his attorney read a statement Wilson wrote.

Marquiell Wilson didn’t want the witness who spared his life to sit through a murder trial, and that’s why he pleaded guilty Friday and accepted a sentence of life in prison plus 30 years.

He was sorry for what he did, but what he did was so egregious it shocked even law enforcement veterans who’ve seen the worst violence in Columbus.

And it was all captured on video.

It was the Dec. 20, 2017, execution-style murder of 68-year-old war veteran Joseph Howard Johnson III in what was then the Columbus Pawn Shop at 2241 Fort Benning Road, where Wilson and Quintavis Williams, then only 15, tried to rob the business around noon.

According to the store video, Johnson was sitting at a computer in the shop as Wilson, then 21, leaned on a front counter beside him and Williams stood by the door looking at his phone.

Wilson turned to the teen and asked whether he had any data on the phone, and the boy said no. Then Wilson stood back, pulled out a 9mm pistol, and with no words at all to Johnson, put the barrel to the part-time worker’s left temple and pulled the trigger.

Then he went after a second store employee, Daniel Lee, then 23, who was in the back. Wilson walked back firing the pistol, and hit Lee in the shoulder.

But Lee was not as easily ambushed: He came out with a Belgian-made semi-automatic pistol called an FN Five-Seven and unloaded at the two, bullets smashing through glass counters as one shot hit the teen in the hip and another struck Wilson below the left knee.

Both went down as gunsmoke filled the air.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Let me go!” Wilson pleaded.

“Bro’, what did you do?” asked Williams.

The north-side glass door through which they’d entered the store had an automatic lock, and it would not open unless an employee hit a button to let visitors in and out. Panicked, both Wilson and Williams hit the door at the same time, bursting through and knocking it off its hinges.

And then they ran as far as they could go.

It was not far: Williams was found yards away on Torch Hill Road, and police soon discovered Wilson in the woods about a block south, yelling in pain.

He lost so much blood that doctors induced a coma to restore his supply, and amputated the lower half of his leg.

Released from the hospital Jan. 1, 2018, he went straight to jail, charged with murder, attempted murder, attempted armed robbery, two counts of aggravated assault and other felonies.

Remorse, gratitude

On Friday, he sat in a wheelchair before Judge William Rumer, as defense attorney Victoria Novak read a letter he’d written for the court.

In the letter, Wilson, now 22, thanked Daniel Lee for saving his life.

“What I can say is that because of my actions, I’ve had the time to do a lot of thinking, and to be honest I shouldn’t be alive today,” the letter read in part. “I’m here because Daniel Lee saved me. He saved me from my own self-destruction. He gave me a second chance at life, and I thank God for it. Daniel could have taken my life, and in my eyes he would not have been wrong for doing so. A close friend of his was taken from him in front of his eyes. He will never forget it.”

Lee did more than refrain from killing Wilson and Williams. He came to court Tuesday, when Wilson initially was set to plead guilty, and asked Rumer to show leniency, to defer sentencing Wilson to life without parole. He didn’t want to strip the killer of any hope for a life outside prison.

At Lee’s urging, Assistant District Attorney Mark Anthony made a deal for Wilson to plead guilty to murder, attempted murder, and attempted armed robbery, in return for a sentence of life with possible parole, plus 30 years.

“This offer was made to Marquiell Wilson after extensive consultation with the deceased victim’s next of kin and the surviving victim of the shooting that occurred on that day, and reflects their wishes as to the outcome of this case,” Anthony wrote in a statement issued later Friday. “It is my practice as an assistant district attorney on every case to make a plea offer that I believe reflects a fair and reasonable outcome, taking into considerations all of the factors and circumstances of the case.”

Despite the shocking violence recorded on the store video, the plea and sentence were appropriate,and ensured Wilson’s case would end there, Anthony wrote:

“There are advantages to a plea, even in the most of egregious of cases. A negotiated guilty plea is for most intents and purposes completely unappealable, creating a finality for victims and their families that is frequently missing after a jury verdict, which can sometimes be reversed on technicalities that are beyond the control of the state. And a plea can also spare a victim from having to relive horrifically traumatic events in a very stressful context, which, I believe, is an important factor on the scales of justice that must be weighed.”

The case against Williams still is pending. He is set for trial Monday, and Wilson has agreed to testify.

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Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.