Motions hearing wraps up in Rifle murder case |

Motions hearing wraps up in Rifle murder case

John Gardner
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Heath Johnston

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – In the third day of witness testimony in Heath Johnston’s first-degree murder trial, Johnston’s neighbor – on the night of the incident – testified that he entered the house and witnessed a very gruesome scene.

“I looked through the window and could see blood and gore,” said John Brandon Stagg. “It was like a horror movie.”

Stagg and his girlfriend, Yolanda Vallejo, were the two next door neighbors of Johnston at the time of the incident. They failed to appear at an April hearing, but testified at Friday’s hearing.

Stagg testified that he and Vallejo were asleep in the residence next door at the time of the shooting. He recounted for the court how he was awaken by his brother that night who told him that Johnston, 21, had just shot his brother, Sam Johnston, 26. He told the court that he could see inside the residence as he went over to make sure that Sam’s kids were OK.

Stagg said that he entered the Johnston house that night, taking three or four steps inside the doorway. He told the court that he saw Sam on the couch, deceased, saw the shotgun on the floor behind the couch, turned and exited the house.

Stagg said that he and his brother had only known the Johnston brothers for about a month and a half. He testified that Sam seemed to be “very depressed” during that time and that, “the world was always ending for [Sam].”

Stagg’s and Vallejo’s testimony was the last of the witness testimony in a three-day motions hearing, which wrapped up Friday.

Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Gail Nichols didn’t rule on all 24 motions, which were filed by both prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case, however all were addressed Friday.

Public Defenders Steve McCrohan and James Conway entered several motions seeking to suppress incriminating statements allegedly made by Johnston. Other motions filed sought suppression of incriminating evidence gathered from the Johnston residence by officers the night of the arrest, and another seeking to suppress evidence seized in a search of Johnston’s jail cell.

Some of the incriminating statements Johnston allegedly made during the arrest, the defense argues, were done before he was read his Miranda rights. Other statements, which the defense would also like suppressed, Johnston allegedly made to a Garfield County Sheriff’s detention deputy while being transported to his preliminary hearing in July 2009.

Deputy Valerie Lee testified in April that Johnston made comments to her about shooting his brother and wanting to get the trial over with so that he could just go to prison.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Cheney argued that those comments should be admitted in the trial because they were voluntary comments made by Johnston. Cheney said that Lee did nothing to elicit any response from Johnston and that he made those comments of his own free will.

“She did everything she could do to get him to not make those comments,” Cheney said, including interrupting Johnston and telling him not to say anything about his case, which Lee testified to. Lee told the court in April, that Johnston continued to make comments regardless of her warnings.

However, Conway argued that she could have done more.

“For someone who didn’t want to be involved in this case she sure heard a lot,” Conway said.

Conway argued that Lee’s “friendly tone” could have caused Johnston to make the incriminating remarks.

Another motion filed by the defense pertained to Johnston being interrogated before being read his Miranda rights the night of the arrest.

Conway argued that police never completely advised Johnston of his rights during the arrest. Johnston later waived his rights at the Rifle Police Station before being formally interrogated by Rifle Police Lt. J.R. Boulton.

Conway said that the evidence supports that the arresting officer, Dewey Ryan, began reading Johnston his rights during the arrest, but that Dewey stopped before finishing. He argued that any statements made before being read his complete Miranda rights, which occurred hours later at the Rifle Police Station, should be suppressed.

The defense also argued to suppress evidence seized during the initial search of the Johnston residence the night of the shooting.

The defense argued that any evidence gathered from the crime scene that night should not be admissible because the police entered the house without Johnston’s consent and before a search warrant was issued, making it an illegal search and seizure.

However, Judge Nichols ruled – in part – to allow any evidence collected at that time to be admissible during trial, saying that the arresting officers were only doing their job by entering the house.

“The court finds that the officers may have had some evidence that Sam was dead before they entered the house,” she said. “However, it’s incumbent of the officers to get inside and see if the victim needs aid.”

The defense also argued that a song written by Johnston that was seized during a search of his jail cell should not be admitted for the trial. Detention deputies searched Johnston’s jail cell in November, during which deputies discovered a song written by Johnston which contained threatening lyrics and gun violence.

The defense argued that the lyrics were outside the realm of the intended search to confiscate contraband, which a song is not considered to be.

Prosecutors argue that the evidence describes Johnston’s character.

Judge Nichols will review the arguments for and against the motions and is expected to make a ruling before the next scheduled hearing in July.

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