Johnson pleads not guilty in death of wildlife conservation officer

January 21, 2011|By DON AINES |
  • Grove

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — A Fairfield, Pa., man accused of the November slaying of a Pennsylvania wildlife conservation officer had just been officially informed that prosecutors would be seeking his execution, but Christopher Lynn Johnson smiled slightly and winked at a woman as he was escorted from an Adams County courtroom Friday morning.

Johnson, 27, entered a plea of not guilty during his mandatory arraignment before Common Pleas Court Judge Michael A. George.

Johnson is charged with first-degree murder, illegal possession of a firearm and other charges in the Nov. 11, 2010, shooting death of David L. 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 it was an intentional killing committed in the course of a felony; and that Johnson killed Grove to prevent him from testifying to the felony.

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

George told Johnson that if he is convicted of first-degree murder, a jury would decide between two sentences: life without the possibility of parole or 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 suggested Johnson's case be set for the April trial term, but Assistant Public Defender Kristin L. Rice said that would not be enough time to prepare a defense, and George granted a continuance until June.

After the arraignment, Wagner said that he did not expect a trial to take place until the fall and that it could last up to two weeks. Rice agreed that a trial is still months away.

"I'm confident that when this case is tried he will be found not guilty of first-degree murder," Rice said Friday afternoon.

Johnson's next scheduled court appearance is a pretrial conference on March 28.

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 occupants of the truck were armed and 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 fired 10 rounds, and Johnson fired at least 15.

Wagner said after the preliminary hearing that Johnson would have had to reload because the weapon he is accused of using has a magazine that will hold only 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.

Several Game Commission officers were present during the arraignment, Wagner said.

The woman who Johnson acknowledged appeared to be in her 20s and left the courtroom as he was being escorted out. Later, she passed a group of reporters on the first floor.

"Keep on talking. You don't know what happened," she said as she left the building.

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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