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Death penalty sought against Pa. man charged in wildlife officer's slaying

Prosecutors allege three aggravating circumstances in case against Christopher Lynn Johnson

January 21, 2011|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Grove
Grove

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Christopher Lynn Johnson, the Fairfield, Pa., man accused of killing Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer David L. Grove, winked at someone Friday morning as he left the Adams County courtroom where he had just been officially notified that the state willseek the death penalty.

Assistant Public Defender Kristin L. Rice entered a plea of not guilty on her client’s behalf during his mandatory arraignment before Common Pleas Court Judge Michael A. George.

Johnson, 27, is charged with first-degree murder, illegal possession of a firearm and other charges in the Nov. 11, 2010, shooting death of Grove, 31, the first Pennsylvania Game Commission officer killed in the line of duty since 1915.

On Wednesday, Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner filed the notice of aggravating circumstances necessary to seek the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Wagner cited three: That Grove was a law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty; that the killing was committed in the course of a felony; and that Johnson killed Grove to prevent him from testifying to the felony.

Wagner said on Thursday that the underlying felony was that Johnson was a convicted felon who illegally possessed a firearm.

George explained to Wagner that, if he is convicted of first-degree murder, a jury would decide between two sentences — life without the possibility of parole and death. The judge also explained that Johnson could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison if convicted on a lesser charge of third-degree murder.

In a series of questions George posed about the proceedings, Johnson limited himself to answers of “Yes” and “No.”

The judge initially set Johnson’s case to be heard during the April trial term, but Rice said that would not be enough time to prepare a defense and George granted a continuance until June.

Wagner said after the arraignment that he did not expect a trial to take place until the fall and that it could last up to two weeks.

Grove lived in Waynesboro, Pa., before moving to Fairfield, and attended Grace Academy in Hagerstown.

He was shot four times on the night of Nov. 11 after he pulled over a pickup truck in Freedom Township on suspicion of poaching.

During Johnson's November preliminary hearing, audio tapes of Grove's radio transmissions were played in the courtroom. Grove reported seeing a spotlight and hearing gunfire and pulling over the truck on Schriver Road. Grove radioed that the the occupants of the truck were armed and he requested backup.

Police allege that the shooting started as Grove was attempting to handcuff Johnson, who pulled a .45-caliber pistol from his waistband. Pennsylvania State Police investigators testified at the preliminary hearing that Grove fire 10 rounds and Johnson fired at least 15.

Wagner said after the preliminary hearing that Johnson had to have reloaded because the weapon he is accused of using has a magazine that will hold seven rounds. Grove was shot four times — three times in his lower extremities and a fatal shot to the back of his neck, according to preliminary hearing testimony.

The murder weapon has not been found, Wagner said Friday. No charges have been filed against Ryan Laumann of Fairfield, who was in the truck with Johnson, Wagner said.

“All indications are that Mr. Johnson was the only individual involved in the shooting,” Wagner said.

Johnson, who was shot in the hip during the gunfight, was found on the morning of Nov. 12 at a hunting camp in Adams County, police said.

Grove’s family did not attend the arraignment, but were in agreement with the state’s decision to seek the death penalty, Wagner said.

No one has been sentenced to death in Adams County since the death penalty was reinstituted in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, Wagner said.

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