Judge stands by ruling to allow gang photos in Johnson trial
The judge in Dominic Johnson's murder trial ruled last month that evidence of his "gang-related activity" can be presented at trial. On Thursday, he stood by that decision as the defense objected to almost every reference of gang lifestyle.
Johnson is one of four people accused of murdering 16-year-old David Grunwald on Nov. 13, 2016. A jury convicted co-defendant Erick Almandinger of first-degree murder earlier this year.
Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak says Johnson, Almandinger, Bradley Renfro and Austin Barrett were a tight-knit group and had an affinity for gang culture, but were not actual gang members.
Defense attorney Lyle Stohler voiced his first objections to any gang reference during Christian Ward's testimony. Ward is a longtime neighbor and friend of Almandinger. Kalytiak asked him several questions about Almandinger's lifestyle.
Kalytiak: What did you observe from his conduct that related to the Crips?
Judge: Overruled, go ahead.
Ward: I saw on his Instagram and Snapchat that he...
Stohler: I'm going to object to that because it would be hearsay.
Kalytiak: It's not hearsay it's to show Erick Almandinger had an interest in the Crips.
During Ward's testimony, both attorneys had two private conferences with the judge to discuss the objection, each lasting about four minutes while white noise filled the courtroom to cover their conversation.
David Evans is a close friend of the group. Grunwald dropped Evans off at Almandinger's house the night of Nov. 13, 2016, but Evans left before Grunwald was beaten or killed. Evans gave a lengthy testimony about his friendship with the teens and described their regular activities as hanging out to smoke marijuana and play video games.
After several defense objections during Evans' testimony, Judge Heath asked the jury to step out so the attorneys could discuss the issue in the courtroom.
"It's inadmissible character evidence because they're basically saying, 'They're wannabe gang members and we think they're acting in conformity with how gang members act.' That's what they're trying to do with this," Stohler said.
While none of the photos in court on Thursday showed Johnson, Kalytiak said the pictures prove the group's dynamic.
"There's more to this case than them being good buddies. They were engaging in similar conduct such as not going to school, smoking marijuana and they were also doing the gang stuff," he said.
Judge Gregory Heath issued his ruling to allow the images in October, after reviewing materials that were part of an evidentiary hearing in August.
On Thursday, he stood by that order.
"I'm allowing it in because it goes to motive and there's a lack of motive in this case. No one understands, no evidence has been presented as to what is the why. The state is asserting we have these four individuals together who planned this out. Maybe it was spontaneously, maybe it was just that night. But they're going to put on evidence there was discussions to do this," Judge Heath said.
Evans later went on to testify Almandinger told him the way to become a Crip was to kill someone or go to jail.
Stohler's cross-examination focused more on his client's role with the group
"To the best of your knowledge, Dominic didn't have any interest in being a gang member," Stohler asked Evans.
"He did not," Evans responded.
Devin Peterson pleaded guilty to hiding the two guns used to beat and kill Grunwald. In August he was sentenced to six years for tampering with evidence and hindering prosecution. He told investigators Almandinger, Johnson, Renfro and Barrett came to his house after they killed Grunwald and asked for advice. Devin told them to "Burn that bitch," referring to Grunwald's Bronco.
Peterson's mother, Alanah Peterson, also testified about the teens' lifestyle. She described her son was a "wannabe."
"They weren't in a gang," she told the district attorney.
Alanah said she remembered a group of kids coming over to her house the night Grunwald was killed. Austin Barrett asked to stay over, but she said no. Alanah later found Barrett sleeping in a car on their property. She recalled his "paranoid" behavior the next day.
"Running to the window every time a car went by, like he was scared of something. I kept asking, 'What did you do?' Because people aren't just scared for nothing," she said.
Johnson's trial continues Tuesday, Dec. 4.
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