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State v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

March 13, 2019


          APPEAL FROM CRIMINAL DISTRICT COURT ORLEANS PARISH NO. 521-673, SECTION "0" Honorable Benedict J. Willard, Judge

          Leon Cannizzaro Donna Andrieu Irena Zajickova COUNSEL FOR THE STATE OF LOUISIANA/APPELLEE


          Court composed of Judge Roland L. Belsome, Judge Regina Bartholomew-Woods, Judge Dale N. Atkins


         Kenneth and Lakeitha Joseph ("victims") were reported missing on February 19, 2014. Nearly a month later, their bodies were recovered from the Intracoastal Waterway in New Orleans. After a lengthy investigation that brought investigators to Georgia, Texas, and across southeast Louisiana, the New Orleans Police Department determined that several people were involved in the double murder and had conspired to cover up the evidence.

         On August 28, 2014, the State charged Horatio Johnson ("defendant") with two counts of second degree murder, a violation of La. R.S. 14:30.1; one count of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice by tampering with evidence, a violation of La. R.S. 14:26 and 14:130.1; and one count of obstruction of justice, a violation of La. R.S. 14:130.1, in connection with the murders of defendant's cousin, Kenneth Joseph, and Kenneth's wife, Lakeitha Joseph.[1]

         Defendant pled not guilty to all charges on September 4, 2014. On January 21, 2017, the trial court denied defendant's motions to suppress evidence, identification, and statements. A jury trial was held between August 21 and August 31, 2017. The State presented testimony from several witnesses and introduced numerous exhibits. After the State rested its case, defense counsel notified the court that it did not intend to call any witnesses. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts, with eleven-to-one verdicts for the second degree murder convictions and the conspiracy to obstruct justice conviction, and a unanimous verdict to convict for obstruction of justice.

         Defendant filed a motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal and a motion for new trial, both of which the trial court denied. Defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence on each count of second-degree murder (counts 1 and 2); twenty years for the count of conspiracy to obstruct justice (count 3); and forty years for obstruction of justice (count 4), with the sentences to be served consecutively. Defendant now appeals his convictions. We affirm defendant's conviction and sentences.


         Kenneth and LaKeitha Joseph borrowed a Dodge Caravan from Kenneth's sister, Ms. Alosia Hayward, on February 18, 2014. When they did not return the van to Ms. Hayward the following morning, she tried calling them throughout the day, but she received no response. That evening, she, her mother, and her sister drove to the victims' home in Reserve, Louisiana, but neither the van nor the Josephs were there. The victims' house had been ransacked. Ms. Hayward stated that either her mother or her sister reported the Josephs missing to the St. John the Baptist Parish authorities.

         Crime Scene Investigator Scotty Lewis with the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff's Office testified that he investigated a call of a residential burglary at 530 Homewood Place in Reserve. Lewis spoke with the first responding officer on the scene, photographed the exterior and interior of the residence, and swabbed various surfaces in the residence for DNA.

         Detective Kirsten McAbee of the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff's Office[2] began investigating the victims' disappearance by entering their names into the national database of missing persons and posting neighborhood flyers. McAbee obtained the victims' cell phone records, which showed that Lakeitha Joseph's last outgoing call occurred on the night that she went missing, February 18, 2014. Detective McAbee's analysis indicated that Lakeitha's phone moved from Reserve to LaPlace to Lutcher and, finally, to Kenner on that same date. McAbee also obtained a search warrant for defendant's residence in LaPlace, and a warrant to search the home of Brittany Martin, defendant's girlfriend. McAbee confiscated a Toshiba laptop computer and an iPad from the victims' residence. McAbee subsequently learned that the victims' van was sighted at a Georgia Travelodge Hotel and that the van was associated with a Travelodge guest named Frank Mike.

         In Georgia, Officer James Jackson, Jr. of the Fulton County Police Department responded to a call of an abandoned Dodge Caravan in the College Park area on February 27, 2014. Jackson learned that the van had been reported stolen from LaPlace, Louisiana, and the report bore the notation "missing endangered person. Hold for latent prints." Jackson impounded the vehicle for processing.

         Fulton County Police notified Detective McAbee that they had located the victims' missing van in College Park, Georgia. The Georgia authorities searched the area for the victims, canvassed for witnesses, and obtained a search warrant for the van.

         Ms. Helen Weathers was an expert forensic crime scene investigator for the Fulton County Police Department in Atlanta, Georgia. On March 1, 2014, pursuant to a warrant, she processed the 2010 Dodge Caravan. She photographed the van and examined its exterior and interior, noting that it had recently been washed, but the tires had not been cleaned and were visibly dirty. The key was in the ignition; a receipt from LaPlace, Louisiana, was found; and two coffee packets were seen in the front console. There were reddish stains on the floor board near the sliding door on the side of the van and on the floor next to the driver's seat, large blood stains on and under the second-row and third-row seats and floor mats, and blood stains behind the side interior paneling. Ms. Weathers swabbed the interior of the van for DNA evidence and collected other evidence from the van's interior, all of which was subsequently transferred to the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Ms. Weathers also obtained guest registration information and surveillance video from the Travelodge Hotel in College Park, Georgia.

         Lakeitha Joseph's body was recovered from the Intracoastal Waterway in New Orleans on March 10, 2014. Several days later, on March 22, 2014, the NOPD retrieved Kenneth Joseph's body, bound in blue rope with a kettle bell attached, from the same waterway. The case was now designated as a homicide investigation.

         NOPD Detective Robert Bachelder was present at the scene when both bodies were retrieved. At trial, Bachelder identified crime lab photographs showing that the victims' ankles were bound by rope, and that a thirty-pound kettlebell was attached to the rope that bound Kenneth Joseph's ankles.

         Dr. Erin O'Sullivan, a forensic pathologist with the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office, performed an autopsy on the body of Lakeitha Joseph. Ms. Joseph had suffered a subscapular hemorrhage on the left side of her head, as if she had been struck; however, Dr. O'Sullivan testified that the blow would not have caused her death, as there was no accompanying fracture of the skull. Dr. O'Sullivan noted that the blue rope knotted around the victim's ankles had caused abrasions to the skin on the legs. In addition, the victim's lower right leg was fractured. Dr. O'Sullivan found no evidence of gunshot or knife wounds. She stated that Ms. Joseph died of asphyxia by drowning.

         Dr. Richard Tracy, another pathologist with the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office, performed an autopsy on the body of Kenneth Joseph. Mr. Joseph's body had arrived at the Coroner's Office with a kettlebell and rope attached to his legs. The body exhibited signs of decomposition, bloating, and discoloration of skin, but there were no signs of penetrating or blunt force injuries, and no hematomas or broken bones. Dr. Tracy testified that Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Rouse classified the death as a homicide by drowning.

         Other parties who had been charged with the disappearance of the Josephs testified for the State at defendant's trial. Frank Mike[3] testified that he arrived at his house in New Orleans East on February 19, 2014, to find a silver Dodge Caravan parked in his driveway by his friend Steven "Future" Bradley.[4] Bradley, along with Horatio Johnson, Amir "Blue" Ybarra, and an unknown black female arrived at Mike's house and moved the van to the back of the house. Bradley gave Mike permission to drive the van to Atlanta on business, but Bradley instructed Mike not to put anything in the back of the van because it might be stained by blood. When Mike opened the van's door, he saw blood in the back.

         Mike testified that he arrived in the Atlanta area on February 20, 2014, and booked a room at the Travelodge Hotel in College Park for two nights. Mike later learned that a van just like the one he borrowed from Bradley was connected to a missing couple from Reserve, Louisiana. During the two days he was in Atlanta, Mike repeatedly tried to call Bradley. When Bradley finally returned Mike's calls, he did so using defendant's cell phone. Mike decided to abandon the van. He washed it, vacuumed the inside, wiped down the interior, and parked it at an apartment complex about a mile from the Travelodge Hotel. Mike and Bradley later got into a heated argument by cell phone, during which Bradley told Mike that he had used the van to rob a couple of $200, 000.00 and several bricks of cocaine.

         On April 3, 2014, after learning that the victims' bodies had been recovered, Mike spoke to NOPD Detective Ryan Vaught and identified photos of Bradley and defendant, whom he knew as "Horatio."

         Mr. Donald Silva, a former bail bondsman and friend of Bradley, testified that he told the police that Bradley had confessed to him that the Josephs were lured to a recording studio in the 2400 block of David Drive where they were beaten to death by Steven Bradley, Amir "Blue" Ybarra, and defendant. Silva testified that Bradley and Ybarra transported the victims' bodies in a van and dumped them in the Intracoastal Waterway, as defendant had instructed. Silva added that the motive for the murders was a large sum of money. On cross-examination, Silva confirmed that he was not present when the murders occurred and that he had learned of the murders from Bradley.

         Ms. Brittany Martin also was charged with the second degree murders of Kenneth and Lakeitha Joseph, but she pled guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for the State's agreement to dismiss the second-degree murder charges against her.[5]

         At defendant's trial, Ms. Martin described defendant as her boyfriend, indicating that they began their romantic relationship about two years before the murders. Ms. Martin said that she was in love with defendant and thought that they would marry. She testified that on February 18, 2014, she received a telephone call from defendant asking her to meet him at a recording studio on David Drive. From the studio, she accompanied defendant to a warehouse near the airport where Kenneth and Lakeitha Joseph met them. The Josephs arrived at the warehouse in a van and stood outside talking to defendant. She and defendant then drove back to the recording studio in her Toyota Scion while the Josephs followed in their van. Defendant and Kenneth Joseph entered the studio while she and Lakeitha Joseph remained in their respective vehicles. Twenty minutes later defendant exited the studio and summoned Ms. Martin and Lakeitha Joseph into the studio to hear Kenneth Joseph rapping. Lakeitha entered the dark studio followed by defendant and Ms. Martin, at which point defendant began to strangle Lakeitha Joseph. Ms. Martin screamed and ran outside, then returned to the studio because she thought she had left her car key. When she realized her car key was in her back pocket, she exited the studio and drove to a gas station on Veterans Boulevard where she sat and drank a soda. She stated that she did not call the police because she was in shock and was not thinking clearly. Defendant called her and asked her to return to the studio, and she complied.

         When she returned, defendant greeted Ms. Martin outside. Defendant re-entered the studio, but she remained in her car. She claimed that she did not call the police at that time because she feared what defendant might do to her family. When she told defendant she was leaving, he got into the car with her. They drove to a retail store where she purchased a knife for protection and hid it in her bra. She drove back to the recording studio and defendant went inside while she sat in her car. Fifteen minutes later they drove to defendant's residence in LaPlace where he washed and changed his clothes and shoes. He packed the items that he had been wearing in a plastic bag, which he put in the trunk of her car. They drove to a deserted area so defendant could burn the bag. After burning the bag of clothing, they drove to the Walmart in Kenner, arriving about 1:00 a.m. Defendant took her car key and made her enter the store with him. Defendant purchased rope, a kettlebell, gloves, articles of clothing, and degreaser. They checked out at the self-serve register using Ms. Martin's American Express card and returned to the recording studio. Ms. Martin remained in her car as the defendant entered the studio with the items purchased at Walmart.

         Ms. Martin noticed that the Joseph's van was still parked in the back of the studio. About twenty minutes later, defendant exited the studio accompanied by Bradley and "Blue," who drove the victims' van to the front door, where the men loaded two large items into the back of the van. Ms. Martin thought the items were the victims' bodies.

         According to Ms. Martin, Steven Bradley and "Blue" drove the van, with defendant and Ms. Martin following in Ms. Martin's Scion, to New Orleans East, where the victims' bodies were tossed into the water. They then went to LaPlace for gas, but Ms. Martin's credit card was declined. Bradley and Blue later met Ms. Martin and defendant and traveled to Baton Rouge to Bradley's mother's house; they all then went to "Box's" house and cleaned the van's interior and exterior. After cleaning it, Bradley and "Blue" drove the van back to Frank Mike's house in New Orleans. After the men spoke with Mike, Ms. Martin drove them back to the recording studio. According to Ms. Martin, defendant and "Blue" got manicures to remove the blood from under their nails; she drove to Wendy's for food and then drove defendant home.

         Ms. Martin continued her romantic relationship with defendant until May 7, 2014, when she surrendered to the police. Sometime before turning herself in, however, Ms. Martin and defendant drove to Texas where they purchased two thirty-pound kettlebells.[6] Defendant instructed Ms. Martin to take them to her home and, if anyone asked, she should say that she used them to exercise. Ms. Martin testified that when she left defendant, he warned her to keep quiet.

         Under cross-examination, Ms. Martin stated that she met defendant while she was a correctional officer. Attempting to refute Ms. Martin's assertion that she did not go to the police because she feared the consequences from defendant, counsel for defendant elicited testimony that between February 18, 2014, and April 9, 2014, Ms. Martin was researching engagement and wedding rings, honeymoon destinations, and car and real estate prices in and around the New Orleans area. She also said she accompanied defendant to visit his family in Texas on March 30, 2014, where they celebrated her birthday. Defense counsel also confronted Ms. Martin with romantic letters that she sent defendant while both she and defendant were incarcerated on these charges. Defense counsel posited that Ms. Martin accused defendant of the murders in retaliation for reneging on his promise to marry her, but Ms. Martin denied that assertion.

         Marvin Buendia testified that he and defendant were friends, and that he had done some graphic design work for defendant's business and for Ms. Martin's business. Around April 25, 2014, Buendia drove defendant to an apartment on Houma Boulevard and then drove home. Defendant returned to Buendia's house accompanied by Ms. Martin; they spent the night at Buendia's house. The following morning, defendant asked Buendia to take a ride with him, and defendant, Buendia, and Ms. Martin drove to a Walmart in Texas. Defendant told Buendia to purchase a thirty-pound kettlebell, which defendant had placed in a specific location in the store. They traveled to another Walmart where defendant and Buendia repeated the routine, and then returned to Buendia's ...

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