DA to seek death penalty in Marlene Johnson case

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Authorities say a woman charged with murder intentionally harmed herself in a county jail cell Tuesday after learning prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty if she’s convicted.

Marlene Postell Johnson was rushed by ambulance to Novant Health Rowan Medical Center then transferred to another, undisclosed hospital, where doctors were evaluating the extent of her injuries.

Capt. John Sifford of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office said a surveillance video showed Johnson climb on a top bunk in her jail cell, stand up, then throw herself backwards, landing on her head and neck.

No other inmates were near Johnson when the incident occurred just before noon, Sifford said. Detention Center officers immediately responded to help her.

Johnson, 61, is charged with the brutal slaying of 62-year-old Shirley Goodnight Pierce — a woman Johnson believed to be her romantic rival — who was found beaten and stabbed to death in her Kannapolis home on the morning of July 23.

In addition to first-degree murder, Johnson is charged with felony first-degree burglary. She is being held without bond.

Johnson appeared in Rowan County Superior Court for a Tuesday morning hearing with her defense attorney, James Davis of Salisbury. At the hearing, Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook said she intended to seek the death penalty if Johnson is convicted at trial.

Cook said the aggravating factors that make Johnson eligible for capital punishment are that she killed Pierce during the commission of another felony — the burglary; the murder was part of a course of conduct in which she committed other violent crimes; and the killing was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

Pierce’s body was found inside her bathtub early July 23 by her fiance. She had multiple stab wounds and had died in an attack so violent, Cook said during a July hearing, the knife blade was broken off in her neck. There were also signs that Pierce had been beaten, investigators said in search warrants.

Johnson was taken into custody 12 hours after Pierce’s body was discovered. An arrest warrant said Johnson broke into the Evandale Road home between 10 p.m. on July 22 and 6 a.m. on July 23 intending to kill her.

Also on Tuesday during the Rule 24 hearing, which was to affirm the state would proceed with the case as capital murder, Davis made a request to review Johnson’s bond.

During a July hearing, District Court Judge Kevin Eddinger had initially set Johnson’s bond at $450,000 and later increased it to $1 million. During an August hearing, Superior Court Judge Julia Gullett took away the possibility of a bond. Gullett also gave Johnson a $500,000 bond on the burglary charge, which was added after her initial arrest. Johnson has remained in the county jail since the August hearing.

On Tuesday, Davis argued there was no direct, physical, or scientific evidence of his client’s guilt, “specifically due to her innocence.” He told the judge the state’s case is purely circumstantial based on a history of prior conflict between Johnson and Pierce. He also said there were no signs that connected his client to the crime.

While Davis indicated he hadn’t heard of any forensic evidence linking Johnson to the murder, Cook said there is forensic evidence awaiting analysis at the state crime lab. She said it could take more than two years to receive results.

Davis also mentioned a suspicious male who was seen near the victim’s home close to the time of her death and left the area when confronted.

He said his client had no history of flight and has relatives supportive of her. He said if she were released on bond, she’d stay with her brother and sister-in-law in Gaston County. There were several members of Johnson’s family in court to support her.

Davis argued that if given a bond, the judge could place restrictions including house arrest, GPS monitoring, and allowing her to only to go his office, the grocery store, the doctor’s office and church.

But Superior Court Judge Richard Stone declined to review the bond.

“She does appear to be a threat to the community. I would not feel comfortable modifying the bond. I certainly hope she didn’t do this, but the evidence is strong that she did,” Stone said.

According to search warrants, Pierce had filed multiple complaints and gotten restraining orders against Johnson over the past several years, saying Johnson had attacked her at a fundraiser and a restaurant, and had repeatedly harassed her. The last no-contact order expired a few weeks before the murder.

Court records said Johnson believed Pierce was having an affair with her estranged husband, Ervin Johnson.

Cook said during the July hearing there was no evidence Pierce had an affair with Johnson’s husband, who is the chief financial officer at Tuscarora Yarns, where Pierce also worked.

Cook also said Johnson hired two private investigators, neither of whom found evidence to suggest Ervin Johnson and Shirley Pierce were having an affair.

The prosecutor said Ervin Johnson’s daughter saw Marlene Johnson underneath her father’s car. When the daughter and Ervin Johnson checked under the car they found a tracking device. The couple’s daughter said her mother was mentally ill and she wanted her to get help, Cook said.

Investigators found pieces of Pierce’s recent mail inside Johnson’s car and home during a search after the murder, according to search warrants. During the hearing, the district attorney said Johnson also had surveillance photos of Pierce and aerial photos of her home and neighborhood.

Cook said Johnson called friend Timothy Connor from the Rowan County jail imploring him to “remember” what he said to law enforcement.

Connor initially told investigators that Johnson was with him during much of the day on the date of the murder. He later recanted, saying Johnson asked him to lie and say she returned to his house that Tuesday.

Aside from the restraining orders obtained by Pierce, Johnson had also signed an agreement to stay away from Tuscarora Yarns, where her husband worked. Johnson on multiple occasions went to her husband’s job, once slashing the tires to his company car, authorities say.

Cook said Johnson had also been inside her estranged husband’s apartment in Mecklenburg County without his knowledge. She’d replaced a glass window with Plexiglass fastened to the frame with Velcro so that she could slip in undetected, even after the locks had been changed.

“I’m concerned for the welfare of not only Ervin Johnson, but others who are afraid of what she may do,” Cook told the judge.

Johnson left the courtroom in tears following the close of the hearing. She could be heard crying as deputies escorted her back to the jail.

Davis said following the hearing he was disappointed, but believes in the justice system.

“I think in the end, when all the evidence comes out, we believe she’ll be found innocent and not guilty and we look forward to that,” he said.

Johnson will remain under constant guard by law enforcement while being treated at any medical facility, Sifford said.

Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.