In a low but steady voice, Donte Johnson on Monday rejected an offer from the District Attorney's Office to plead guilty and receive a life-without-parole prison sentence in the June 2010 rape and murder of Sabina Rose O'Donnell, the 20-year-old Northern Liberties woman whose slaying behind her apartment building rocked the trendy community.
Johnson, 20, of 11th Street near Poplar, rejected the same offer in December 2010, when city prosecutors were talking about seeking the death penalty against him. They've since opted not to pursue the death penalty, which means Johnson, ironically, would face a life sentence if a jury finds him guilty of first-degree murder.
Opening statements are expected to begin this week after the completion of jury selection, which is to begin Tuesday morning.
On Monday, Johnson's two attorneys failed to persuade Common Pleas Judge Glenn B. Bronson to toss out their client's police statement. The then-18-year-old defendant allegedly confessed to stalking O'Donnell for her bicycle then dragging her it to a grassy lot behind her apartment building at 4th Street and Girard Avenue, where he raped and strangled her.
Attorneys Gary Server and Lee Mandell attacked the police statement on two fronts: its authenticity and whether Johnson had the intellectual competence to consent to give a statement.
One of their witnesses, Gerald Cooke, a forensic psychologist in private practice who gave Johnson a battery of tests, testified that Johnson's IQ is 73, not far from "retardation," which he said is below 70. Cooke said that Johnson suffers from organic brain damage, which he was likely born with, and that he functions on the level of an 11- or 12-year-old.
His daily addiction to marijuana and alcohol since his early teens makes his brain damage even worse, Cooke said.
Johnson's mother, Syreeta Johnson, and her boyfriend, George Jones, both testified for the defense that before they turned Johnson over to detectives, he was drinking whiskey and smoking marijuana.
"He was a little high; he was slurring. … His eyes were red," said Jones, who called Johnson his stepson.
Server questioned whether Johnson even said the things attributed to him in the five-page police statement. The attorney said the grammar and syntax in the statement were more advanced than Johnson's abilities. "That language in the statement cannot be Mr. Johnson's because he does not have the ability to speak like that," Server told Bronson.
Homicide Detective Thorsten Lucke testified that Johnson was sober when he made his statement two weeks after the murder. Before Johnson confessed, Lucke said, he made up several stories that did not have the ring of truth. Lucke said Johnson changed his story several times, including telling him that he and O'Donnell had been dating and later that he came upon her corpse and masturbated on it.
"I told him that his story did not make sense. I said I was not going to take a statement from him unless he told the truth," said Lucke, who said he wrote down only Johnson's final statement. n