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State v. Johnson

June 29, 2006

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
JAMES EVANS JOHNSON, APPELLANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. District court erred in denying defendant's request for a jury instruction on the lesser-included offense of first-degree heat-of-passion manslaughter when the evidence presented provided a rational basis for the jury to acquit the defendant of second-degree intentional murder and convict him of the lesser-included offense.

2. District court erred in denying defendant's request for a jury instruction on self-defense when he had met his burden of providing reasonable evidence to support his claim of self-defense.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meyer, Justice

Dissenting, Anderson, Paul H., and Page, JJ.

Took no part, Gildea, J.

Reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

OPINION

A Hennepin County jury found appellant James Evans Johnson guilty of second-degree intentional murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Jullie Bottema. Johnson appealed his conviction to the court of appeals, arguing that the district court abused its discretion when it refused his request to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of first-degree heat-of-passion manslaughter and on self-defense. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the evidence failed to support either instruction. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

Bottema was shot and killed on May 12, 2003, while in the upstairs bedroom of Johnson's home. The medical examiner testified that the manner of death was homicide. Bottema died instantly from a single gunshot wound to the top of her head. The shot was fired from a distance of approximately two to four feet and tore away a portion of Bottema's little finger as she crouched with her hands over her head. The Derringer pistol used to kill Bottema was found in her hand.

The state's theory is that Johnson killed Bottema and then shot himself to make it look like he did not intentionally kill her. Johnson, however, testified that Bottema shot him first and that he does not remember what happened after she shot him. Johnson did not deny that he shot Bottema, but claims that he acted either in the heat of passion or in self-defense.

Johnson and Bottema became romantically involved in early 2002. At the time of her death in May 2003, Bottema was intermittently living with her mother in Farmington, Minnesota, and Johnson in south Minneapolis.

On the evening of May 11, 2003, Johnson was cooking dinner for Bottema when his brother-in-law, Peter Jaroscak, arrived at Johnson's house. While Jaroscak was there, Johnson had a telephone conversation with Bottema in which Johnson learned that Bottema was not going to be home for dinner. Jaroscak testified he thought that Johnson "felt bad" and "disappointed" but not angry about Bottema's cancellation. During the conversation, Bottema did not tell Johnson that she was mad or that she intended to leave him. Nevertheless, before Jaroscak left Johnson's home at approximately 11 p.m., Johnson e-mailed Jaroscak a semi-naked picture of Bottema in, as described by Jaroscak, "a lewd pose."

Johnson attempted to contact Bottema on her cell phone over 60 times from the time that Jaroscak left that evening until noon of the following day. Bottema's mother testified that Bottema finally answered Johnson's call at approximately noon the following day and "was mad, very mad." Bottema "was screaming on the phone," asking Johnson, "How could you do this to me, Jim? Why did you do this to me?" The cell phone call lasted approximately a half hour.

Later in the afternoon, Bottema called her brother's best friend, Robert Horton. Horton testified that Bottema was upset and she told him "that she had enough, and it was time for her to move out and that [Johnson] put a picture of her on the internet." They then drove to Johnson's house. Not finding Johnson there, they found his vehicle parked nearby at the house of Johnson's friend, John White. Bottema called Johnson on his cell phone, and he immediately left White's house to go home.

White said that by the time Johnson left White's house, Johnson had consumed four or five rum and Coke drinks. Johnson's blood-alcohol level was .188 when it was tested at 6:24 p.m. White, a licensed firearms dealer, had previously sold Johnson a two-shot Derringer pistol that he never saw Johnson carry.

Bottema and Horton waited for Johnson to arrive at his house at which point Bottema walked into the house, showed Johnson the picture of her that Johnson had e-mailed to Jaroscak, and asked him, "What is this? Why did you put this on the internet?" Johnson described her as "crazy mad" at this point. She then went upstairs to her bedroom and started packing her things. The autopsy of Bottema indicated that she had a very large amount of methamphetamine in her system at the time of her death.

Johnson followed her upstairs and asked, "Why are you doing this to me? Why do you want to leave?" At some point, Johnson noticed that his Derringer, which he had taken out the night before while investigating a noise, was still on his computer table on the main level of his house. He decided to put it in his pocket because Bottema was getting angry, he did not know Horton, and he wanted to be safe. Eventually, Johnson came back downstairs and went with Horton out the back door to show him a table saw that had originally been intended for Bottema's father. Johnson told Horton that if Bottema's father did not want it, Horton could take it.

Johnson testified that he then went back upstairs because he "wanted to see what she was packing because that was my mother's room." Johnson's mother had recently died and her belongings were in the upstairs bedroom. Bottema told him "to get out of there." Johnson left the room and when he came back he thought she seemed "excited" and "different" and that he had "never seen her like that" and "she wouldn't listen to nothing." He "wanted her to slow down on the drugs" and told her that he might call the police. He looked to see what Bottema was packing. She pushed him away a few times and then Johnson "told her not to push" him. Johnson said that she "just went nutso like a light switch" and started hitting and kicking him, making him fall down. He thought that the Derringer fell out of his pocket when he fell down.

According to Johnson, he got up, told Bottema that he "was going to call the cops and let them straighten this up, they could watch what she's packing," and started to leave the room. He then looked back and saw that she was pointing the gun at him. When he turned towards her and pushed the gun away, it fired and he was hit. His next memory is of waking up on the floor of the bedroom lying next to Bottema's body. He heard sirens approaching and went out to the front porch to tell the officers that they needed help. Johnson did not remember whether or not he shot Bottema.

Horton testified that he came back into the house after spending between three and five minutes moving the table saw to the alley. He heard Johnson and Bottema talking and arguing and was in the house for two or three seconds when he heard a gunshot. Horton then saw Johnson backing out of the bedroom doorway with the gun in his hand. Horton testified that Johnson turned and looked at him, with a look of disbelief or shock on his face. Horton then headed out the front door and called 911 on his cell phone. As he was leaving the house, he heard a second gunshot.

Minneapolis Police Officer Virginia Staudt responded to Horton's call between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m. She saw Johnson coming out of the house a few minutes after she arrived at the Johnson home. As Johnson came out of the house, he saw Staudt and said, "We need help." Staudt ordered Johnson to lie down on the sidewalk, where she frisked him and took a Derringer holster from his right front pants pocket. Johnson then told Staudt that Bottema "grabbed my little Derringer and shot me. I pushed her back, she cocked it again and it went off."

Staudt observed that Johnson had an injury near the right side of his head and described his demeanor as very calm. She then accompanied Johnson in an ambulance to the hospital where she learned that Johnson had a gunshot wound to his head. Staudt heard Johnson tell the ambulance paramedic that Bottema "shot me and then I tried to take the gun from her and it went off." The emergency room physician who treated Johnson's head wound believed he was shot from close range because of the presence of powder burns around the wound.

At trial, Johnson repeatedly claimed that he did not remember how Bottema was shot. He did not believe that he shot Bottema, but admitted that it was possible. The medical examiner testified that Bottema could not have shot herself because her hands were on top of her head when the fatal shot was fired.

During trial, Johnson was described as a "calming," "very mellow," "laid back," and "compassionate" man who had never been in trouble with the law. Two people who knew Johnson for at least 40 years, his sister Gloria Frandsen and his friend John White, never knew him to be violent. In a prior romantic relationship, which lasted approximately 20 years, there were no allegations of violent or assaultive behavior. White, who talked with Johnson almost every day, said that Johnson "talked highly of [Bottema] all the time." Johnson's sister thought that "never in a million years" would he be capable of hurting Bottema.

After closing testimony and prior to closing arguments, Johnson requested an instruction on the lesser-included offense of first-degree heat-of-passion manslaughter. He also requested a self-defense instruction. The district court denied each of Johnson's requests. He now argues that because his requests ...


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