Suspect in deaths deemed retarded

— Prosecutors on Thursday dropped their plans to seek the death penalty against a 22-year-old Little Rock man accused in a string of armed holdups and shootings that left three men dead, including a university professor, after doctors determined him to be mentally retarded.

Arkansas law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent bar the execution of mentally retarded defendants whose IQs are 65 or below. Testing at the State Hospital measured Brandon Dewayne Johnson’s IQ at 55, according to a mental-health evaluation filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court on Tuesday.

Now seeking a life sentence for Johnson, prosecutors fended off a defense claim Thursday that he is not competent to stand trial, with Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey ruling that Johnson is fit to proceed after a 2/2-hour hearing that featured testimony from psychiatrists for the state and the defense.

Prosecutors bolstered their case Thursday that Johnson is fit for trial with a collection of letters they say he wrote last year that show he tried to persuade a friend to claim ownership of a pair of bloodied jeans. Another letter demonstrates that he knows the murder weapon, found under his girlfriend’s couch, near the pants, had been stolen, deputy prosecutor John Hout told the judge. The defense disputed the authenticity of the letters.

Johnson is charged with three counts of capital murder, 14 counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of aggravated residential burglary, nine counts of first degree battery and 10 counts of theft. He is accused in a series of armed holdups between September 2008 and January 2009 that police say mostly targeted Hispanics. Three men were killed in the robberies, including University of Arkansas for Medical Services instructor Joseph Bittengle, and another eight men were wounded. The investigation and Johnson’s subsequent arrest were featured on the A&E network reality show Crime 360.

Johnson is to stand trial in August over the January 2009 slaying of Eric German, 24, followed by trial in November over Bittengle’s December 2008 killing. Trial dates have not been set in the January 2009 slaying of 26-year-old Akshaya Nandam and the other robberies and shootings. Chief deputy prosecutor John Johnson, no relation to the defendant, told Humphrey that prosecutors plan to use evidence from all three of the killings at Brandon Johnson’s August trial.

Testifying for prosecutors, Dr. Brian Rush Simpson, a forensic psychiatrist at the State Hospital, testified that he found Brandon Johnson to have mild mental retardation, telling the judge that the defendant has no history of mental illness. Johnson’s claim of hearing voices in his head is more likely an indication of his low IQ , Simpson told the judge, than an indicator that he is schizophrenic. People with mental retardation regularly report hearing voices, which are actually the internal monologue that most people have while thinking, he testified.

Simpson rejected accusations by defense attorney Bret Qualls that he had incorrectly scored competency tests that otherwise would have shown that Johnson is too retarded to be tried in the killings.

The defense psychiatrist, Dr. Bhushan “Shawn” Agharkar of Georgia, testified that the defendant puts up a good front, but careful questioning shows Johnson is unfit to stand trial.

Johnson “parrots” what others tell him in an effort to please them, Agharkar said under questioning by defense attorney Jim Wyatt, but doesn’t have sufficient understanding of the accusations against him or how the legal system works to stand trial.

“It really tells you this is a guy you have to be careful with ... because he’ll look at you like he understands,” the doctor said. “He tries to please you. He tries to play down his cognitive difficulties.”

As an example, Agharkar told the judge, Johnson initially was enamored with John Johnson, the prosecutor, thinking that Johnson wanted to set him free.

“He thought the prosecuting attorney was cool,” Agharkar testified. “He should know the prosecuting attorney is against him, not on his side.”

Arkansas, Pages 11 on 03/12/2010

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