The trial of Donte Johnson continued Monday May 7 with prosecutors resting their case and the defendant making the decision not to testify.
Defense attorneys for the defendant are also expected to conclude their case, with the jury receiving their instructions from the judge sometime today.
Johnson, 20, is accused of raping and murdering Sabina Rose O’Donnell on June 2, 2010. Gary Server, Johnson’s defense attorney, has been calling his client’s confession into question, arguing that Johnson suffers from mental dysfunctions and may not have understood all of the details of what he was doing. Johnson decided not to testify, and defense counsel backed off a motion to call in character witnesses to attest to Johnson’s non-violence and peacefulness. Their reason was it would open the door for the prosecution to cross examine those witnesses regarding a 2010 charge against Johnson for simple assault. In that case, he was adjudicated delinquent.
Server also cross-examined Detective Thorsten Lucke, who took Johnson’s confession, and Detective Frances Kane, the lead investigator on the case. Server repeatedly asked questions regarding samples of long hair that were found on O’Donnell’s body. One hair was identified as animal hair; the others were human hair — one of which had a root. It was to be analyzed for DNA, but there was a question if it was ever sent.
“I don’t know,” Kane replied. “You’ll have to ask the criminalistics lab.”
But there was no question that Johnson’s semen was found on Sabina’s body. And Johnson admitted to putting her in a choke hold, saying that at one point she couldn’t breathe — that she was gasping for breath before she became unconscious. When Johnson was asked how the victim’s bra managed to be around her neck, Johnson allegedly replied it was probably him.
“That was probably from me trying to take her bra off,” Johnson allegedly replied. Lucke said Johnson seemed evasive and unwilling to go into too many details.
At one point during the proceedings, Assistant District Attorney Richard Sax put Sabina’s best friend Marie Rodriguez on the stand, asking her about the last hours she spent with the victim. In a testimony that bordered on tears, Rodriguez told the jury what they did that night and how she felt about her friend.
“She was the kind of person that made me want to do better,” Rodriguez said. “She helped get me a job at PYT. That day we got off work and got some pizza. We sat across from my house eating and just talking about life. We were just hanging out, you know? We laughed, we talked and we invited some friends over. We went out to eat and just hang out — the only argument we had was whether to eat inside the restaurant or outside. We ended up eating outside. We had a glass of wine and went back to my house. I fell asleep around 1 a.m. When I woke up Sabina was sitting in the chair. Normally she slept over, but I had a huge pile of clothes on my bed and I slept on the couch.”
Sabina asked her friend if she could borrow her bike to get home. Rodriguez said yes and that was the last time she saw her friend alive.
Homicide detectives are trying to determine the motive behind a shooting in West Philadelphia on Wednesday night, April 2 that left a 16-year-old boy dead the next day.
The victim, whose name was not released by Tribune press time, was critically wounded after being struck several times by gunfire as he was walking out of a corner grocery store in the vicinity of 62nd and Callowhill streets.
According to Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson Officer Christine O’Brien, the incident happened around 8:10 p.m. The victim was one of four teens who was in the neighborhood visiting relatives. He was asked to go to the nearby Koury Grocery and when he walked out of the store, a dark-colored Pontiac sedan with tinted windows drove past. Someone from the passenger side began firing, striking the teen four times in the head, chest and arms. He was rushed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in critical condition and died Thursday morning, May 3.
The motive still remains unknown, but authorities believe the incident was a case of mistaken identity.
In a series of unrelated criminal investigations, law enforcement authorities said there have been a surge of robberies around the campuses of Drexel and Temple Universities. According to Drexel’s Public Safety office, in the past three weeks there have been a series of robberies in the early morning hours west and north of the campus. So far, no one has been injured.
The suspects have been described as two Black males, 18- to 25-years of age and wearing hooded sweatshirts.
“Drexel Police and security patrols have been increased in marked and unmarked vehicles. Philadelphia Police have also added uniformed and plainclothes officers to the area, and are working with Drexel Public Safety to identify and apprehend these perpetrators,” said a statement released by Drexel’s public safety department. “Public Safety suggests that you take appropriate caution when walking on or around campus. Walk in groups, and avoid displaying valuables and the use of distracting devices such as cell phones or music players.”
Temple University also reported several robberies around the immediate streets near the campus over recent weeks, but officials say it’s not true that there is a rise of incidents on the campus.
“The notion that robberies are on the rise on the campus is false,” said Ray Betzner, spokesman for the university. “On April 10 there was a robbery on the campus in which a cell phone was taken, but no gun was used in that incident. Now in the immediate areas around the campus, there have been eight robberies and three of those incidents were armed robberies. Arrests were made in three of those cases. Since January 1st of 2012 there have been a total of nine robberies.”
In another unrelated criminal investigation, three suspects were arrested following a tense situation in which three family members were held hostage during the attempted robbery of an Asian takeout restaurant.
The incident began at about midnight Wednesday at the Hong Heng store at 4201 Ogden Street in West Philadelphia. According to police, neighbors observed what they said were three suspicious Black males wearing hoodies and following the store’s owner inside. Police were called to the scene, but when officers arrived the metal security grates were down. Officers heard crying from inside and called in the SWAT team. After several hours, the family was released and the suspects were arrested. The suspects have been identified as Anthony Jackson, 20, Demetrius Young, 20, and Kaneef Smith, 21. They have been charged with criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, aggravated assault and related offenses.
Three police officers, including the deputy chief, have been suspended and a state of emergency declared in the tiny borough of Colwyn, Delaware County, following an investigation into why a restrained teenager in custody was Tasered and the incident allegedly covered up.
Mayor Dan Rutland confirmed earlier this week that an officer, Corporal Trevor Parham, is under investigation for allegedly using a Taser on a teenage suspect, identified as Da-Qwaun Jackson, 17, while he was handcuffed and in police custody on April 24. Parham has been relieved of his badge and gun pending further investigation. The incident happened inside the borough police station’s detention area, and there were concerns that the officers involved were trying to cover it up.
Also suspended were Deputy Chief Wendell Reed and Officer Michel Drucker. The state of emergency was declared because of the shortage of officers.
“If for some reason an individual is not complying while in police custody or becoming violent and aggressive, there’s many options you can use to subdue them,” Reed said in an earlier published report. “The Taser is one of those less-than-lethal options.”
So far, three of the Colwyn Police Department’s 14 officers have been placed on suspension following the incident. According to Mayor Rutland, none of the remaining 10 on the job was a trained supervisor and he had to reinstate Lt. Wesley Seitz, whom the Borough Council had earlier suspended. Seitz had nothing to do with the tasering, and actually informed the mayor about it. The mayor said he was not notified of the incident until he inquired about it five days later.
According to reports, on April 24, Jackson was brought in for questioning following a fight and was allegedly uncooperative with authorities. He declined to give his name to Parham, who gave him a citation for disorderly conduct, which Jackson threw on the ground. According to reports, Parham took him into custody and while Jackson was handcuffed and his legs shackled, he kicked the holding cell bars. At that point, Parham allegedly used his Taser on the teen.
Rutland did not return phone calls from the Tribune by press time, but in a published report said that he was very disturbed by what happened.
“I should have been informed, not kept in the dark,” he said. “It’s disturbing to me. It’s not the way you run a department.”
Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams went before members of City Council on Tuesday requesting additional money to hire more prosecutors, and said that among the nation’s 22 largest counties, Philadelphia is the second lowest for funding for a prosecutor’s office.
Williams also said that underfunding is also an indication that murder rates are often higher where the funding is lower.
“It’s almost directly inversely proportional — the rate of funding to the rate of violent crime,” Williams said, adding that the latest statistics show the murder rate is up 9 percent. “Philadelphia has the second worst funding, and one of the highest murder rates. We find ourselves in the midst of unacceptable levels of violent crime. All types of violent crime have risen so far this year. As of April 15, there have been 102 homicides in the city. Aggravated assaults with guns are up 19 percent, and violent crime is up 4 percent. Philadelphia continues to fare much worse than the country as a whole, with murder and robbery rates four times the national average during 2009 and 2010.”
Right now the city’s budget allocates $31 million for the District Attorney’s office. That figure remains unchanged, Williams said, which essentially amounts to a budget cut. Taking into consideration the current budget constraints, he’s not asking for more new money, he believes, but that his department be returned a portion of the millions of dollars they’ve saved through new programs and initiatives over the last two years. Specifically, Williams is requesting an increase of $636,675 that would be used to hire 13 new assistant district attorneys.
The additional attorneys would free up seasoned assistant district attorneys to prosecute more violent offenders.
“Being able to hire them will permit me to have our more experienced prosecutors handle our increasing numbers of violent cases, especially homicides, non-fatal shootings and rapes,” Williams said.
As of May 2 there have been 114 murders in Philadelphia. One of the victims was Clarice Douglas of the 1500 block of Corlies Street. Douglas was gunned down in the middle of the afternoon when two young Black males began shooting at each other. Douglas, who was standing on her porch waiting for her children to come home from school, was struck several times.
One of the suspects was wounded and is under arrest but the second suspect, Shekinah Williams, remains at large. Williams, 28, from the 2100 block of Sears Street, has been incarcerated before. There is a $5,000 reward being offered for his arrest and conviction; $2,500 was donated by State Senator Anthony Williams and $2,500 from developer Mark Nicoletti.
“Regarding this recent shooting, we have one person being held and we recovered a gun. We have some direction on the second suspect. As for the other recent incidents, there could be a lot of things causing the violence in that part of town,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey regarding the investigation. “Basically, there is no shortage of thugs with guns who are not afraid to fire over any dispute.”
The district attorney echoed that sentiment at the budget hearing, and said one of the consistent problems that drive violent crime is the proliferation of illegal guns. Making it clear that law-abiding gun owners are not the problem, he said a new practice being used is asking high bail for those caught with illegal firearms.
“St. Louis began this practice last year and quickly cut its homicide rate by about 20 percent,” Williams said. “It is unlikely that most individuals caught carrying an illegal weapon will be able to post high bail. Therefore, they will remain in prison until their trial. Regardless of the verdict and sentence they receive, these offenders will already have served several months of incarceration. Both they and their criminal acquaintances will have seen and witnessed the new reality — if you carry an illegal gun you will be incarcerated, full stop. Moreover, in these cases we will almost always ask for prison time and no probation.”
The words of Sabina Rose O’Donnell’s accused killer pretty much say it all — the alleged confession to police of a young man suspected of rape and murder.
“I don’t like the whole thing. I shouldn’t have did it. I shouldn’t have put my hands on her. All over a bike,” said Donte Johnson in his confession after being arrested for the murder of O’Donnell in June 2010.
Jury selection began Monday April 30 in the murder trial of Johnson, who is accused of raping and strangling to O’Donnell to death for the bicycle she was riding. The prosecution says they have a lot of evidence — surveillance showing Johnson in the vicinity where O’Donnell was murdered, and DNA evidence linking him to the crime. Johnson’s defense says their client suffers from mental health issues that affect his ability to make decisions, and is trying to have his confession suppressed.
As of Tribune press time, the judge hearing the case, the Honorable Glenn B. Bronson, had refused the defense’s motion and will allow the defendant’s confession as evidence.
The murder of O’Donnell was one of the 306 homicides in Philadelphia in 2010, but O’Donnell belonged to a stratum more visible to mainstream society than the mostly invisible young Black males who gun each other down almost every day.
She was a young, very pretty girl, an aspiring actress, model and dancer. She was a high school graduate from Franklin Learning Academy who worked at the trendy burger restaurant PYT. She was going places. By contrast, her accused killer Donte Johnson dropped out of William Penn High School in the 10th grade. Unlike O’Donnell, there is no Facebook picture album of Johnson, no photos showing him as an aspiring athlete, or winning awards — no photographs depicting what his hopes for the future were. In fact, the only pictures made public of Donte’s aspirations for the future were his mug shot, and those captured on surveillance camera showing him riding around in circles at 4th and Girard, looking into parked cars, allegedly waiting for someone to rob at 2 a.m.
He’s recorded following Sabina, who passed him by on another bicycle until he’s off camera. Two young lives that fatally intersected that night left one dead and the other at a dead end. O’Donnell was 20 years old when she was murdered. Johnson was 18.
According to police reports, O'Donnell left a friend’s house after 2 a.m. on June 2, 2010, borrowing the friend’s bike to get home to the nearby apartment she shared with her stepfather, Mark Rounds. Surveillance video released by the Philadelphia Police Department showed an unidentified man circling the area through which Sabina would ride. The next morning, a local resident discovered her naked body in an empty lot near her home. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled to death with her own bra.
Investigators collected a great deal of forensic evidence from the crime scene, including DNA form the person who raped her. Homicide detectives arrested Johnson on June 16, 2010, charging him with O’Donnell’s murder after his mother, Syreeta Johnson, turned him in.
It was originally thought that Johnson would take a plea agreement offered by the District Attorney’s Office — life in prison instead of the death penalty. He eventually rejected the offer, choosing instead to take his chances with a jury. The District Attorney’s Office last week decided against pursuing the death penalty in the case, but if convicted of first degree murder, Johnson still faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.