On September 14, 1984, 24-year-old Taressa Stanley, the clerk in a Kwickie convenience store in Warner Robins, Georgia, was found in the store shortly before 9 p.m. She had been shot in the neck. Stanley died two days later without identifying her attacker.
Behind the store, on a well-used foot path that led to a street, police found coins and bills as well a carton of beer cans that appeared to have been torn open by someone falling on it. Full cans of beer were strewn on the path. Inside the store, the beer cooler door was open.
The police evidence tape was barely up around the crime scene when a convicted felon and police informant named Mark Davis showed up and asked officers if someone had been shot and robbed. He claimed that the killer was 22-year-old Timothy Johnson and that Johnson had told him a week earlier that he planned to rob the store. Johnson was arrested the next day.
Johnson was charged with capital murder, armed robbery and aggravated assault. The Houston County District Attorney’s Office said it would seek the death penalty. Johnson was also charged with robbing the same store in July—six weeks before Stanley was killed. Police also arrested Johnson's disabled mother, his stepfather and his girlfriend and charged them with helping Johnson dispose of proceeds of the crime.
On December 11, 1984, Johnson pled guilty to murder and two counts of armed robbery. In return, the state dropped its demand for the death penalty, along with the aggravated assault charge, and Johnson was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life in prison. Charges against Johnson's stepfather, mother and girlfriend were also dismissed.
In October 2001, Johnson filed a handwritten motion to vacate his guilty plea, contending that his lawyer had failed to inform him of his right to appeal and that he did not understand the rights he was giving up by entering a guilty plea. Johnson also claimed that there were several witnesses who could have testified that he was not involved in Stanley’s murder and robbery because he was at a “shothouse,” an establishment that illegally sold alcohol and allowed gambling.
The motion was denied in 2002. Johnson, still pressing his case without the help of a lawyer, filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, again noting that he had alibi witnesses.
The petition was denied, but he was allowed to appeal the decision to the Georgia Supreme Court. In 2006, the Supreme Court granted Johnson’s motion, vacated the guilty plea and ordered a new trial.
The court held that at the time he pled guilty, Johnson was not informed that he was waiving his right to confront witnesses and his privilege against self-incrimination. The court said that Johnson’s lawyer’s claim that he had advised Johnson of his rights “fell well short of demonstrating that (Johnson) was fully informed of the constitutional rights he was waiving by pleading guilty.”
Johnson was moved to the Houston County Jail to await trial. An attorney was appointed to represent him and took sworn depositions of two of Johnson’s witnesses and a written statement from a third, who all said they saw Johnson at the “shothouse” at the time of the crime. One of them said he drove Johnson home because Johnson did not have a vehicle.
The state dismissed the armed robbery charge relating to the robbery that occurred six weeks prior to the murder after witnesses in the store at the time of the crime could not identify him.
By the time the murder case came to trial in 2013—more than seven years after the Georgia Supreme Court decision—the prosecution was no longer seeking the death penalty and much of the evidence in the case had been lost. A gun that the prosecution said matched a bullet from the victim was gone, as was the bullet. The weapon had never been linked to Johnson, but instead was found in some bushes where Johnson’s stepfather had thrown it after he found it in a garbage bag in the back of his truck.
Police said they had found a palm print on the beer carton behind the store and that it belonged to Johnson, but the trial judge excluded testimony about the palm print because the defense was unable to examine it.
Most of the critical witnesses—for both the prosecution and the defense—were unavailable because they were dead or could not be found. Davis, the man who was at the scene of the crime and said Johnson was the killer, was dead, as were three of Johnson’s alibi witnesses. Another of the alibi witnesses was in a coma and two could not be found.
On December 5, 2013, after a four-day trial, a Houston County Superior Court jury acquitted Johnson and he was released.
In November 2015, Johnson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Warner Robins and Houston County police. The lawsuit alleged that a month after he was arrested, officers took Johnson out of the Houston County Jail and dangled him over a bridge, threatening to drop him unless he pled guilty to the crime.
– Maurice Possley