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Death penalty possible in Pa. case

August 08, 2000

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The Franklin County District Attorney's Office has filed a notice of aggravating circumstances against a Chambersburg woman charged with criminal homicide, opening the possibility that Jonna M. Johnson could become the first woman in the county's history to face the death penalty.

The one-paragraph notice was filed Friday with the Clerk of Courts Office by Assistant District Attorney T.R. Williams. The notice said that Johnson "knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense."

"The significance is doubled when you have two people exposed to that risk," Williams said Tuesday.

Johnson, who is scheduled for mandatory arraignment today in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, is charged with criminal homicide and two counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault. If Johnson pleads innocent, she will be scheduled for the November trial term, Williams said.

Shortly before 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 11, three people were shot at the Veterans of the Vietnam War Post, 1571 S. Main St., Chambersburg, according to borough police records. The post's vice commander, Robert E. Tucker, 49, of Chambersburg, was found behind the building, dead of a single gunshot wound to the head.

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Inside the building were Kimberly K. Bigler, 37, and William B. Groff Jr., 36, of Fayetteville, Pa. Bigler, the club manager, had been shot in the left arm with the bullet passing through and grazing her head. Groff, Bigler's boyfriend and a bartender at the post, had been shot in the face.

Despite their injuries, both were released from the hospital later that week. Bigler testified at Johnson's June 27 preliminary hearing that the shootings occurred shortly after closing when all other customers had left the post.

"Kim, I am really sorry about this," Bigler testified Johnson said as she raised a revolver and fired at her.

Johnson was a member of the post and knew the three victims, according to police records. She went to borough police headquarters within minutes of the shooting to report having witnessed it, but Bigler had already called 911, according to police.

Police have not indicated a motive for the shooting and no other suspects have been named.

Under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, a charge of criminal homicide encompasses several crimes ranging from first-degree premeditated murder to involuntary manslaughter. The degree or guilt is determined at trial, or through a plea agreement.

Criminal homicide alone is insufficient to secure a death penalty. State law requires at least one of about 20 aggravating circumstances to be present in the commission of the crime.

If a person is convicted of first-degree murder at trial, a penalty phase follows. Depending on whether the trial is before a jury or judge, the penalty phase determines whether the person will receive life in prison or the death penalty.

The only person from Franklin County on death row is Albert E. Reid, now in his 50s, who was convicted in 1998 of murdering his estranged wife and stepdaughter two years earlier, according to court records.

Michael B. Singley, now in his mid-20s, of Chambersburg, faces a possible death penalty for the murder of Christine Rohrer and James Gilliam on Nov. 3, 1998. His trial is scheduled for October, according to court records.

County court records show women have been convicted of third-degree murder or manslaughter in recent decades, but none have received the death sentence.

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