Interference, intimidation cited in attempted-murder case
An attorney for a man accused of shooting two teen brothers at a vacant house withdrew from the case Thursday after saying the defendant’s supporters had threatened and investigated her and interfered in the case.
The hearing in Durham County Superior Court included a tense exchange between community activist Victoria Peterson, who supports defendant Christopher Taylor Johnson, and Judge Howard Manning.
After defense attorney Lisa Williams laid out her reasons for withdrawing as Johnson’s lawyer – citing interference from Peterson and family members – Peterson raised her hand from the courtroom gallery, drawing a reaction from the judge.
“I don’t know who you are,” Manning said.
“I’m Mrs. Peterson,” she said.
“I don’t care who you are,” Manning said. “You’re not a lawyer. You’re not an officer of the court, and you’re not a party in the case.”
“But she [Williams] mentioned my name,” Peterson said. “I’m Mrs. Peterson.”
“You’re welcome to be here,” Manning said. “But you’re not a lawyer and you have no standing in this criminal case.”
The exchange continued with Peterson asking why she couldn’t respond.
“Ma’am, this is not the forum to discuss your relationship with Mrs. Williams,” Manning said. “I’ve allowed her to withdraw, and I would caution you and anyone who’s involved in this case not to interfere with any witnesses or anybody else. People do not intimidate witnesses. They do not intimidate members of the family. We’re not going to run our system by outside interference.”
Also at the hearing, Assistant District Attorney Stormy Ellis said Peterson and others had interfered in the case, and she issued a warning.
“I’m going to speak with my officers about the possibility of having witness intimidation charges looked at,” Ellis said. “There has been untoward contact with the victims. They have been approached by numerous members of the family.”
Ellis said she understood that Williams needed to withdraw from the case. But she said her departure will further complicate the case.
“We were trying to work toward a resolution in this case, but this will make it even more difficult,” she said. “It appears that any attorney assigned to this case may come up against the same witness intimidation, and let’s just put it out there – attorney intimidation.”
Police arrested Johnson, 25, in December and charged him with two counts of attempted murder in the non-fatal shooting of two boys, ages 14 and 16, at a vacant house on Grace Lane, off Liberty Street in East Durham. Johnson remains in the Durham County Jail under a $1.5 million bond. Also charged in the shootings is Thomas Deangelo Griffin, 19, who is in jail under a $1 million bond.
Members of Johnson’s family left the courtroom Thursday in tears, saying police arrested the wrong man.
Alonzo Williams, Johnson’s stepfather, said the family asked for Peterson’s help “because [Johnson] is just sitting in jail for nothing.”
“He didn’t do this,” Williams said. “We’ve got proof that he didn’t do this.”
Johnson’s wife, Chelsea Johnson, sobbed as she insisted her husband has been in jail four months for something he didn’t do. “My husband just needs to come home,” she said.
Tierra Murray, Johnson’s cousin, said the family was unhappy they didn’t get a chance to speak in court.
“We thought this would be a bond hearing,” Murray said. “We had some idea that Mrs. Williams was withdrawing, but we thought we’d get to respond to what she had to say about the situation.”
Murray denied that family members had made threats.
“The family here today has stuck by Chris since this happened,” she said. “We’re not going around threatening anybody. Chris is not someone who would do something like this. We wasn’t trying to cause a ruckus or trouble.”
Peterson also denied interfering in the case, saying the family requested her help.
“I’m a political activist,” she said. “I know the law, but I was not giving any legal advice. I was just telling [family members] who the persons are they need to see to put in complaints.”
“This man has been sitting in jail for months,” Peterson said. “He says that he is innocent. He did not shoot those young boys. And to keep holding him in jail for something he has not done is ridiculous.”