Headlines News

10 capital murder cases pending



News Staff Writer

James Larry Johnson, who has been held in an Escambia County Detention Center cell on a capital murder charge for more than four years, will get his day in court next week. Maybe.
The court docket for the September 10-21session includes the case against the Brewton man, who is charged with the Memorial Day 2014 shooting death of Christopher Adam Salter, who was the boyfriend of Johnson’s former wife.
Court documents and law enforcement reports show that Johnson, who has been in custody for more than 1,400 days, went to Salter’s home on AlaFlora Road and shot him several times.
Due to the complexity of capital murder cases, there is a good chance that the case against Johnson won’t be heard by a jury anytime soon. The chance is better that Johnson’s trial will again be delayed or postponed due to motions filed by his defense attorney.
According to a list furnished by Escambia County (Alabama) Circuit Clerk John Robert Fountain of capital murder cases still pending in Escambia County Circuit Court, nine defendants charged with 10 murders await trial. Some have been in jail for only a few months; others, including Johnson, were arrested as long as three or four years ago.
Johnson is one of nine Escambia County (Alabama) defendants in 10 capital murder cases that are still pending.
The others so charged are as follows:
* Darrell Octavius Brown is accused of two capital murders and is directly linked to a third slaying. Brown is charged in the shooting deaths of Robert Kennedy, who was killed in an invasion of his Atmore home, and of Donta Russell, who was shot to death inside his car, in the yard of Brown’s residence, also in Atmore. Both murders occurred in 2017, and an accomplice of Brown’s is also charged in both killings.
Note: Ladarious Jamaal Crenshaw of Atmore is charged with simple murder in the 2017 shooting death of Shawn O’Neil Quarles, who was gunned down as he rode his bicycle along Ann Street. Authorities determined that Crenshaw shot Quarles because he believed the bike-rider was Brown, who reportedly owed Crenshaw money.
* Deion Lamar Booth of Chickasaw, who was behind bars in Mobile on burglary charges when his murder indictment was handed up, is also now being held here, charged with assisting Brown in the Kennedy home invasion-murder.
* Cleveland Cunningham III is charged with the fatal stabbing in 2016 of Kenneth Bettis, a corrections officer at Holman Correctional Facility who refused Cunningham an extra tray of food. Cunningham was held in the county jail for two days until his preliminary hearing was over, but has otherwise been in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections since the murder.
* Collis McCaster has been behind county bars since September 2014. He is charged with the 2013 slaying of Atmore resident Mildred Jackson Morris, who was choked to death in her Adams Street home, which was then set afire.
* Yeldon Rostchild is charged as Brown’s accomplice in the fatal shooting of Donta Russell.
* Jonathan Michael Taylor of Brewton is accused of shooting Cory Brian Moncrief, boyfriend of Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, once in the back of the head in 2015. He has been jailed for more than three years.
* Brett Richard Yeiter is facing trial for the 2014 shotgun slaying of Paul Phillips, pastor of Book of Acts Holiness Church on Jimmy Sellers Road, just north of the Florida line. Yeiter, who shot Phillips at the church, has been jailed since November 2014.
* Also on the list of pending capital murder cases furnished by Circuit Clerk John Robert Fountain is a Castleberry woman, Nadiya Diane Walker, who is being held under a “safekeeping” arrangement.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “safekeeping” is the charge usually listed on jail records when a defendant who is willing to turn state’s evidence against another, or whose safety is threatened by incarceration in the county where the crime took place, is moved from one jail to another.
No information could be located as to what crime Walker was allegedly a part of or witnessed. Scant records available online show that she was held for safekeeping in Baldwin County for a while before she was transferred in 2016 to Escambia County.
John Molchan, prosecutor for Florida’s First Judicial District, said prior to a recent capital case in Santa Rosa County that there is a shortage of private attorneys who handle such cases, that most lawyers qualified to defend capital murder defendants work with the public defender’s office or other areas of the local court systems.
That leaves the fate of the defendant in the hands of a court-appointed attorney who might not be as aware of the complexities of such cases or an attorney who accepts such cases on a pro bono basis.
Molchan pointed out that private attorneys usually don’t have the time or money to take on such cases that often stretch for years, lead to undue stress and are costly to defend.
“A death penalty case is expensive on their business,” the prosecutor told the Pensacola News Journal during an interview earlier this year. “It has a huge impact on their practice, not only from the discovery standpoint and the trial standpoint, but also in post-conviction. The attorneys get called back into court to defend their actions later on, and you have to go through a lot of steps to get paid in those cases.”
According to the Innocence Project, death penalty cases “by their nature move slowly through the trial phase, then trigger multiple appeals that can grind the process to a halt. In most death row cases, the emphasis is on delaying or preventing the execution and not speeding it up.”
Thirty-one states have the death penalty, and 30 of them require a unanimous vote of a jury in the sentencing phase of a capital trial. That is not the case in Alabama, where a jury can impose a death sentence with a vote of at least 10 to 2, and the presiding judge can overrule the panel’s decision, no matter what it is.
According to findlaw.com, in 90 percent of Alabama capital cases since 1982 that have resulted in a conviction and a recommendation of life in prison, the various judges have overridden the jury and imposed a death sentence.
The wheels of justice spin even more slowly once a capital murder conviction has been obtained. Alabama Department of Corrections data shows the average Alabama death row inmate has been awaiting execution for 14 years, which is within the national norm of 16.5 years.