Death Row Inmate Kills Self, Claimed Innocence

As his defense attorney worked on a last appeal of his case, 29-year-old Michael Johnson, who was set to become the 376th prisoner executed in Texas since 1976, took a makeshift knife and slashed his own throat

On Oct. 19, as 29-year-old death row inmate Michael Johnson's defense attorney worked on a last appeal of his case, Johnson, who that evening was set to become the 376th prisoner executed in Texas since 1976, took a makeshift knife, slashed his own throat, and used his blood to write on his cell wall before collapsing. Johnson was found in his cell around 2:45pm and was pronounced dead an hour later at the hospital in Livingston.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Johnson wrote, "I did not shoot him" on his cell wall; Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons says an investigation into the incident is ongoing and that the exact message Johnson wrote has not been made public. (Nonetheless, a handful of media outlets reported some variation of the message the Chronicle reported. Lyons said she doesn't know what Johnson wrote but said that no one has said the reported accounts are "completely off.")

Johnson was sentenced to die for the 1995 attempted robbery and murder of 27-year-old gas-station attendant Jeffrey Wetterman. Johnson, then 18, was charged with killing Wetterman during a robbery of a convenience store in Lorena, from which Johnson and an accomplice, David Vest, were trying to steal $24 worth of gasoline. Vest initially signed a statement indicating that he fired the fatal shot, but after working out a plea deal with prosecutors – eight years in prison for a downgraded charge of aggravated robbery – he agreed to testify against Johnson, fingering him as the shooter.

Johnson was slated for execution in 2003, before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals intervened, allowing Johnson a chance to appeal his case based on a claim that he was unaware of Vest's "confession." Johnson argued that his conviction should be overturned because prosecutors failed to disclose this potentially exculpatory evidence and subsequently proffered false testimony by having Vest testify that Johnson pulled the trigger. In March, the 5th Circuit dismissed his appeal, ruling that Johnson had not satisfied federal law requiring that he prove he would have been unable to unearth Vest's statements in spite of due diligence. The court found that Vest's statement was readily available in his court file and that Johnson could have found it, even if prosecutors had deliberately withheld the documents from Johnson's defense.

"Because we conclude that Johnson cannot meet [the legal requirements for his appeal], we are constrained to [affirm his conviction], even on a troubling record of the State's inconsistent pretrial and trial statements with respect to the two co-defendants," the court wrote. The U.S. Supreme Court denied on Oct. 10 Johnson's appeal of the intermediate court's ruling.

Lyons said it appeared Johnson's knife was "wooden based" – possibly made from two tongue depressors or Popsicle sticks, between which he'd placed a "metal shard" of some sort. The weapon was tied together with dental floss. Lyons said Johnson was the first inmate to commit suicide on the row; the last attempt was in 1999.

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Capital Punishment, Death penalty, Michael Johnson, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

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