The Forsyth County Superior Court is considering arguments whether a new trial should be granted to one of four suspects convicted for a 2010 murder and armed robbery at a Forsyth County grocery store.
On Wednesday, attorney Jessica Towne brought a motion before the court, bringing up alleged errors she sees as grounds for a new trial in the case of Sharod Farran Johnson, a 26-year-old man who was accused and convicted of murdering a security guard while robbing a local Ingles grocery store in 2010.
According to court records and statements made on Wednesday, at the time of the crime Johnson worked as an employee of the grocery store and masterminded the plan to rob the store. Johnson allowed three individuals -- Nakitta Holmes, Tyrice Adside and Travarius Jackson -- to enter through a back door and posed as a victim while the men robbed the store.
David Casto, a 37-year-old security guard, was tied up in the store’s freezer and later shot in the head with his own gun by Holmes, reports say.
Due to his suspicious behavior, Johnson was arrested by Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office deputies in the aftermath of the shooting and the three other suspects were later taken into custody in Gwinnett County at the Mall of Georgia as they were getting into Johnson’s car.
During the trial, Johnson was found guilty of malice murder, armed robbery and aggravated assault and battery, and was sentenced to more than two life sentences. Holmes pleaded guilty to shooting Casto and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, while Adside and Jackson were sentenced to 20 and 25 years in prison, respectively.
In her motion to the court, Towne argued that several alleged mistakes made by Bob Wilson, Johnson’s attorney at trial, amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel, walking the court through several different instances in the trial where they believed Wilson erred or did not pursue potentially helpful actions.
Towne stated in court and in a brief filed supporting the motion that Wilson did not ask the court to strike testimony given by Darren Slayton, a witness charged in connection with two other related armed robbery cases, who refused to answer questions during part of his testimony by exercising the Fifth Amendment.
"A reasonable, competent trial attorney would have insisted upon ruling to preserve Mr. Johnson’s rights," Towne said.
In a rebuttal, Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn stated that even though the court did not rule to strike Slayton's testimony, Wilson was given the chance to cross-examine Slayton about statements made prior to invoking the Fifth Amendment but elected not to.
"He said he had no questions ... so I would argue first, judge, that there was no reason to strike Darren Slayton's testimony, no legal basis for doing that and therefore even if he should have gotten a ruling, Mr. Wilson can't be ineffective for not making a motion or an objection to which there is no merit." Penn said. "Whether Mr. Wilson should have cross-examined, he needs to be asked about that … It could be that for strategic purposes he decided not to cross-examine Darren Slayton. We don't know."
Towne also argued that several different pieces of evidence presented at the trial should have been similarly suppressed due to their conflicted origin.
According to Towne’s motion, after the robbery in 2010, Johnson was interviewed by law enforcement as a victim of the crime and during that interview, he surrendered his phone to detectives, who used [Adside’s] phone number on his phone to locate and arrest Adside, Holmes and Jackson.
“Prior to trial, Johnson filed a motion to suppress the information obtained from his cellphone by police,” the motion states. “The motion was granted as to ‘all information and data obtained from Johnson’s iPhone prior to 9:40 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2010,’ which would have included the ‘information‘ that [Adside] had been the one calling him repeatedly.”
Towne said on Wednesday that the suppression was ignored at trial when law enforcement witnesses referred to information found on Johnson’s phone prior to a search warrant being obtained which tied Johnson to the other suspects and corroborated other witness’s testimony. She contended that this information should have been stuck and jurors should not have been allowed to consider it.
"Yet the detectives testified at trial as to what they gleaned from the information before the search warrant was obtained," Towne said.
Penn also argued against this point, stating that law enforcement had ample probable cause to seize Johnson’s phone and all information which led to the arrests, information was gleaned after the search warrant was issued, and the jury was not led to believe otherwise.
"At the time that the sheriff's office was at the Mall of Georgia, the search warrant had already been issued. That was how they had found the phone," Penn said. "There was no reason for the jury to think that it was at any other time.”
An issue surrounding Johnson’s original sentencing from 2013 was also brought before the court, which reportedly left the man with two fewer felonies than he should have been sentenced for.
Penn stated that the issue derived from merging two charges with another and if corrected would not change the defendant’s incarceration for two life sentences, plus 20 years.After arguments were made, Chief Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley told the court that he would take the matters under advisement and would issue a ruling after reviewing the transcripts and brief.