Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lockport, NY: Falls man gets 25 years to life for murdering wife

By Thomas J. Prohaska and Nancy A. Fischer
Updated: January 27, 2010, 12:03 am / 1 comment
Published: January 26, 2010, 5:15 pm

LOCKPORT — A Niagara Falls man convicted of the brutal murder of his wife in their apartment last year was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison Tuesday by Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III.

But that doesn't end the case.

Defense attorney Michael W. McNelis filed a motion for a new trial, saying another man has confessed to the murder.

Murphy pronounced himself "very skeptical" of the defense claim, while Assistant District Attorney Lisa M. Baehre deemed it inadmissible hearsay. Nonetheless, Murphy scheduled a Feb. 17 hearing on the defense motion.

Robert E. Johnson, 27, was found guilty Oct. 5 of stabbing his wife of four years, Ahkenya Johnson, 32, in their Jordan Gardens apartment Jan. 17, 2009.

Baehre reminded the judge that the woman's throat was cut "from ear to ear" and she was nearly decapitated. She also said that Ahkenya was stabbed 49 times and three knife blades were snapped off in the victim's body.

"One knife was not enough to demonstrate his hate and rage for his wife," Baehre said. "It was a morbid work of art ... and he was not going to stop until she had paid for four years of not loving him."

Johnson didn't speak on the advice of his attorney, because of the pending motion and a likely appeal if Murphy refuses a new trial. He stared straight ahead as Ahkenya's sister, Africa Olds, called him a "monster." But he choked up as he signed an order of protection barring him from ever seeing his children again.

Olds is raising Ahkenya's two daughters, ages 10 and 5, in Columbia, S.C.

"What do you say to a 5-year-old who asks when Mom is going to come back from heaven?" Olds asked. "[Johnson] does not deserve to start his life over again, because my sister will never have another breath."

The mothers of the defendant and the victim embraced both before and after court.

"I love these people. They are and always will be family," said Rosalind Russell of Buffalo, Johnson's mother, moments after kissing Brenda Betton, Ahkenya's mother, on the forehead.

After the sentencing, dozens gathered in the cold late this afternoon for a rally in front of Jordan Gardens in Niagara Falls, where Ahkenya was killed, to honor all victims of domestic violence, and silver and pink balloons "were released to heaven" in Ahkenya's memory.

"I think she's at peace now," said her friend Mae Smith.

Kim Davidson was among those who attended the rally. Her 18-year-old daughter, Kari Gorman, of Wilson was shot to death by an ex-boyfriend in July 2008.

"If Ahkenya and Kari were here today, they would ask us to take action so that no other young woman would have to suffer the horrific fate they needlessly endured," Davison said. "They would want us to teach other young men and women about this.

"Let's break the cycle of abuse," said Davidson, who encouraged more education for young people so that they can better recognize the warning signs of an abusive relationship.

Susan LaRose, Niagara County Domestic Violence advocate coordinator, said there were 3,900 reports of domestic violence last year in Niagara County, including three homicides. One, in Hartland, involved a male victim, a rarity, LaRose noted.

She also estimated that double the number of reported cases went unreported.

"Domestic violence is a crime and it affects everyone in the community," LaRose said.

Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John R. Chella said since that from June 2008 to June 2009, 37 percent of all felony assaults in the city involved domestic violence.

"That is too high," Chella said.

During the sentencing, McNelis, the defense lawyer, presented an affidavit signed last week by a Niagara County Jail inmate who claimed that he heard inmate Thomas Pryor say he killed Ahkenya Johnson.

McNelis, who argued during the trial that Robert Johnson was getting a haircut when his wife was killed, pointed to a mixture of DNA in the blood on Johnson's shoes, which McNelis said became bloodstained when Johnson returned home, found his wife's body and knelt beside it to see if she was breathing.

The DNA included readings that showed an unidentified third party.

The inmate who wrote the affidavit last week was Robert J. Thousand, of Rochester, who is charged in the murder of youth home counselor Renee C. Greco in Lockport in June.

McNelis said Thousand heard Pryor, who is no longer in custody, make the alleged admission around Thanksgiving.

McNelis said he first learned of this in December. He is representing Thousand's co-defendant in the Greco case, Anthony J. Allen. He said he insisted on a sworn statement, so Thousand wrote one last Thursday, had it notarized by a guard and gave it to Johnson.

"It would not have produced a new verdict at trial because it's hearsay," Baehre said. She also said the statements Thousand attributed to Pryor don't match the facts of the killing as shown in the trial.

McNelis also complained that Murphy had barred him from using text messages that he said Pryor had sent: "The woman is dead. Police are all over. We've got to get out of town."

Baehre said those messages were not sent by Thomas Pryor but by someone else, also named Pryor. She said Niagara Falls Detective Thomas Ewing had questioned Thomas Pryor about the case last summer.

Ewing was in the courtroom but declined to comment. He may be called to testify at the Feb. 17 hearing.

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