Editor’s note: This article has been modified to reflect the following change: A neighbor of murder suspect Marlene Johnson told investigators Johnson’s car was at her Mooresville home the entire day of July 22. An earlier version incorrectly reported that a neighbor of Shirley Pierce had seen Johnson’s car at the victim’s home.
By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — District Court Judge Kevin Eddinger stunned a tense courtroom Wednesday, ruling that Marlene Johnson, charged with first degree murder in the stabbing death of Shirley Pierce, would have the opportunity to post bond.
During a bond hearing, Eddinger set Johnson’s bond at $450,000 — a steep drop from the denial of bond given by the magistrate and typically instituted in murder cases.
Relatives on both sides of the aisle sobbed at the decision Wednesday afternoon.
The ruling came after Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook delivered jarring evidence in Pierce’s murder. Johnson is accused of repeatedly stabbing the 62-year-old to death in a bathtub inside Pierce’s home. Cook said the attack was so violent, the knife blade broke and lodged in Pierce’s neck.
The district attorney laid out an early game plan in the prosecution’s case, providing details about the volatile history between Johnson and Pierce, surveillance photos of Pierce, Pierce’s mail that investigators found inside Johnson’s home and the brutal details surrounding the Kannapolis woman’s death.
Pierce’s fiance discovered her body on the morning of July 23 in her Evandale Road home.
Following a roughly 20-minute meeting with attorneys after the arguments, Eddinger gave his ruling with little explanation of the decision.
“I understand the emotional factor is extraordinarily high for all in the courtroom. I also recognize that as the [district attorney] said it’s very early in the process,” Eddinger said. “But the value that we as a community would place on Mrs. Pierce’s life is in part reflected by how well we respect the judicial process even for the one accused of taking her life.”
Eddinger also referred to an argument from Johnson’s defense attorney, James Davis, who mentioned the maximum recommended bond for a class B1 felony — typically used in violent crimes — as $350,000.
“The suggested amount of bond under these circumstances for a B1 Felony is $350,000,” he said. “As the DA correctly points out this is not a B1 felony, this is first-degree murder. So therefore I’m going to set the bond at $450,000.”
As the 2 p.m. hearing neared, detectives filed into a jury box and about 75 friends and relatives of Pierce and Johnson moved silently into the divided rows of the second-floor courtroom.
Davis led, gently addressing what he called a “history of conflict” between the two.
“As it relates to the execution of some search warrants, I understand that maybe there were some magazines and mail that were found of Ms. Pierce maybe in the location of Ms. Johnson,” Davis said. “I don’t think it’s disputed that there was this ongoing difficulty in the involvement of Ervin Johnson, her spouse, separated spouse, and Ms. Pierce and the sort of antipathy that had occurred over time.”
But Cook dismissed the notion that Pierce, an administrative assistant at Tuscarora Yarns, was ever romantically involved with Johnson’s estranged husband, Ervin, who is the president and CFO of the company.
Cook also said investigators found Pierce’s mail inside Johnson’s car during a search of the vehicle last week. Some mail was also located at Johnson’s home. It was dated July 2013, she said.
Inside Johnson’s home, Cook said, investigators found what appeared to be surveillance photos of Pierce and aerial photos of Pierce’s home and neighborhood.
Citing court records, Cook said Johnson targeted Pierce as far back as 2007, when Johnson assaulted her during a fundraising event in Charlotte.
Cook counted off several other instances, including an assault at a Concord restaurant where authorities said Johnson was waiting outside the eatery for Pierce and two friends to leave. In the parking lot, Cook said, Johnson assaulted the group.
Cook also mentioned multiple text messages that she said Johnson sent Tuscarora Yarns’ human resources department in 2010 accusing Pierce of having an affair with her estranged husband.
“I can tell the court from the information and evidence that has been investigated by the Sheriff’s Department, there is absolutely no evidence to support that Ms. Pierce ever had an affair with the defendant’s estranged husband,” Cook said.
Investigators said Johnson was found with “numerous cuts,” and scratches on her fingers and arms when taken into custody.
“The majority of these appeared to be fresh,” Cook said.
Deputies spoke with Timothy Connor, an apparent friend and life coach, who initially told deputies he was with Johnson during the time of the murder, from 5 a.m. on July 22 through around noon on July 23.
But in an affidavit for a search warrant, investigators said they interviewed Johnson’s neighbor, who told them Johnson’s car was at her Mooresville home the entire day on July 22.
Connor later told deputies Johnson asked him to lie for her, according to warrants. Connor recalled Johnson telling him to say she went to his house Tuesday if asked, Cook said.
Leaning against a small, white holding-cell wall prior to the hearing, Johnson occasionally glanced out at the courtroom audience as she fiddled with her handcuffs.
Eddinger granted media requests to allow cameras in the courtroom shortly before the proceedings.
Following the camera ruling, Johnson was allowed to change out of her mocha-colored, jail-issued shirt into a floral-patterned blue top.
Johnson remained stone-faced throughout the hearing, wincing only periodically at attorneys’ arguments.
Davis, her attorney, told Eddinger his client’s case would be affected if she were unable to properly prepare for her defense if she remained in jail.
“It’s a serious matter. It is important that due process occur,” Davis said. “It is important that if Ms. Johnson is forced to sit in jail for several months that is a key feature for the court’s consideration.”
As a part of the bond ruling, Eddinger required that Johnson wear an electronic ankle monitor.
“In addition to the monetary requirements of the bond, the defendant shall observe the requirements of electronic house arrest with a GPS component,” Eddinger said. “The defendant will confine herself to Iredell, Mecklenburg or Rowan counties. The defendant will comply with the default positions of the GPS monitoring, which include necessary medical care, the offices of her attorney, any place where she, for example, that the defendant might meet with her attorney.”
She was also granted permission to go to the nearest grocery store.
Eddinger barred Johnson from any contact with potential witnesses in the case or from setting foot on Tuscarora Yarns property.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.