The Trial of Cecil Johnson

Almost three decades after he murdered three humans in cold blood, Cecil C. Johnson Jr. was executed on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009 at 1:34 a.m. CST.

The Supreme Court opinion at 632 S.W.2d 542 reports what he did to deserve the death penalty. In 1980 on July 6 Johnson told Victor Davis that he was going to rob Bell's Market on Twelfth Avenue South in Nashville and leave no witnesses. About 10 p.m. he murdered Bobbie Bell (age 12), James Moore, and Charles House. Bobbie's father Bob and Lewis Smith barely escaped death.

An interesting procedural issue on appeal involved a juror's attempt to impeach her verdict. What was then common law is now found in Evidence Rule 606(b), which I discussed in my September 2000 column. In essence, a motion for new trial will not be granted based on a juror affidavit "concerning the juror's mental processes." In other words, a verdict will stand despite juror goofiness. In 632 S.W.2d at 549 we encounter this example:

The substance of the juror's affidavit was that she did not understand that she could have voted for life; that she felt like she was locked in (on the death penalty); that she thought she would have to explain her vote to the judge if she voted for life; that she was afraid the judge would look at her and say, "Well, why did you do it?"[; and] that she was not afraid of the judge, but was afraid that she would be embarrassed. The juror further stated that she now believes, deep down in her heart, that Cecil Johnson did not commit the crimes.

Obviously the affidavit did not carry the day. The Supreme Court affirmed the sentence of death. Post-conviction relief was denied in 797 S.W.2d 578 (Tenn. 1990) and in 1997 WL 738586 (Tenn. Crim. App.).

Cecil Johnson managed to kill again even behind bars. The Associated Press accounts of his execution state that he was convicted of the beating death of Laron Williams at the old Tennessee Penitentiary. So he was a quadruple murderer rather than a mere triple murderer.


Don Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law.