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Courtroom Confusion

“My son deserves a jury before his peers,” Michael Johnson said of Albert “A.J.” Johnson as the father Tuesday protested outside the county courthouse in Batesville. “I tried to communicate with you,” Circuit Judge Andrew C. Baker told the defendant a day later as he handed the case to another judge. The Panolian photo by Billy Davis

Muddled plea bargain gets new judge, may head to trial

By Billy Davis

A circuit court judge has recused himself and a public defender has withdrawn from an unusual court case that is now headed toward trial. 

“To make you feel better, you won’t see me any more,” Judge Andrew C. Baker told defendant Albert  “A.J.” Johnson Wednesday in Batesville.

Baker announced his recusal near the end of a 20-minute hearing that was held to learn how Johnson wished to proceed with his criminal court case.

Johnson, 22, of Sardis, was indicted in April on charges of grand larceny and narcotics possession.

Circuit Judge Robert Chamberlin will now oversee Johnson’s case and likely a jury trial, Baker announced from the bench.

Baker also announced he was relieving public defender David Walker from Johnson’s case and was appointing Clay Vanderburg, another public defender.

Baker, five days earlier, had ordered Johnson be taken into custody after the defendant failed to describe his intentions while standing before the circuit court judge.

Court procedures require Baker to verbally confirm that a defendant standing before him is competent and alert, and shows no signs of drug or alcohol use, or mental deficiencies. Baker said that list of criteria could not be confirmed because Johnson either talked too softly or failed to answer his questions.

“He would not respond to my questions. He would not cooperate at all,” Baker told the Panolian after the incident Monday.

The Panolian contacted Baker after the defendant’s father, Michael Johnson, staged a protest Tuesday outside the Batesville courthouse. Brandishing a handmade sign, Michael Johnson claimed unnamed court officials tried to coerce his son to plead guilty or face incarceration.

“My son deserves a trial before his peers,” the father told a reporter. “He did not want to plead guilty. He wants a trial, which is his constitutional right.” 

Albert Johnson stands accused of stealing $7,542 from a safe at McDonald’s in Batesville, where he worked.

Authorities allege the theft was caught on videotape, even after Johnson tried to cover up a security camera with a dishrag. He allegedly confessed to the crime and led Batesville police to a home in Sardis, where he had stashed the money under a bed. Nine hundred dollars was missing.

Police, when they responded to the restaurant, also allege they found a pill bottle, beneath Johnson’s car, bearing his name. 

The bottle contained crack cocaine, and Johnson admitted the cocaine was his, court documents show.

The embezzlement charge carries a maximum 10 years in prison and drug possession carries a 16-year maximum sentence, Baker said from the bench Wednesday.

Johnson, as part of a plea bargain, had agreed to serve four years in prison, with his sentencing postponed until November, Assistant District Attorney Jay Hale told the court Wednesday.

But Michael Johnson told a reporter he is urging his son to reject any plea offer and request a jury trial.

The father alleges that David Walker, the public defender, had failed to prepare for trial and instead told his son to accept the plea offer. 

But Walker told Baker his client has failed to clearly tell the public defendant his wishes as the case progressed.

“He has never told me he wants a trial,” Walker said.

Before Wednesday’s hearing, Michael Johnson sought to talk to Walker in the courtroom but the attorney refused. 

“I have nothing to say to you,” Walker curtly replied.

“I’ll speak,” Johnson said, calling Walker an “incompetent public defender” during a tongue-lashing of the attorney. 

When Johnson said his son’s case would “make national news,” Walker angrily accused him of verbally threatening him.

“If you threaten me, I will file simple assault charges,” Walker said, standing a few feet from Johnson.

Albert Johnson, also speaking toward the end of the hearing Wednesday, disputed Walker’s claim that he had been uncooperative by missing two court appearances.

“Mr. Walker is being inconsistent,” Johnson said, making his only comment during the proceedings.

Johnson, who was out on bond, had no-showed for a court date on October 12 and appeared the following Friday, October 16, only after Walker called him, the public defender told the court.   

Hale told the court that he had sought a bench warrant for Johnson, after his absence on October 12, but he relented when Walker assured him Johnson would be present for the Friday court proceedings.

Walker, early in the proceedings, had made an unusual move by calling court administrator Elizabeth Lintz to testify.

Lintz testified, under oath, that she had contacted Johnson and advised him about his court appearances.

Baker, to conclude the hearing, revoked Johnson’s “R o R” bond, which allowed the defendant to remain free on a promise to appear in court. The judge then set a new bond at $15,000.

“I tried to communicate with you,” Baker told the defendant.