2008-06-17 / Front Page

Johnson found guilty of capital murder

By DAVID LOWE Staff Writer

PHOTO BY DAVID LOWE Chaka Romain Johnson exits the Lampasas County Courthouse Friday afternoon after his conviction of capital murder in the July 4, 2007, shooting of Hidi Gower. Johnson's lawyer, Burnet attorney Eddie Shell, said his client will appeal. Also pictured is Sue Kluge, Lampasas County Sheriff's Department warrant officer, and Bob Hilgenberg, detention officer. A jury Friday afternoon found Lampasan Chaka Romain Johnson guilty of capital murder in the July 4, 2007, slaying of Hidi Gower.

Mrs. Gower was shot three times at the Kempner Veterans of Foreign Wars post in what law enforcement officials have described as a murder for-hire her husband, Donald Gower, organized to collect on his wife's life insurance policy.

Johnson's conviction carries an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole. Johnson's lawyer, Burnet attorney Eddie Shell, said his client will appeal.

The jury deliberated about three hours before announcing at 3 p.m. it had reached a verdict.

"It was a surprise," said Lampasas County & District Attorney Larry Allison, who prosecuted the case, of the length of jury deliberation. "I had expected them to be in there until 5 or 6 p.m. It just kind of confirms to me that reasonable people can sort through things and think rationally about evidence."

The prosecution relied in large part on the testimonies of alleged co-conspirators Jeremiah John Ellison, Regina Edwards and John Robert Martinez, arrested July 9, 2007, on capital murder charges. Ellison and Ms. Edwards have been released from jail, and Martinez has been indicted by the Lampasas County grand jury.

Throughout Johnson's trial, the first held in response to the shooting of Mrs. Gower, Shell attempted to discredit the witnesses and emphasized what he called a lack of physical evidence connecting Johnson to the shooting.

Shell cited DNA test results presented Thursday to argue that the state could prove no physical link between Johnson and Mrs. Gower's murder.

Shell showed a lab report that states the only DNA found on the single-action .45-caliber revolver used to shoot Mrs. Gower came from a female.

Investigators did not require a DNA test of Regina Edwards. Mariah Epperson, Martinez's girlfriend, also did not receive a DNA test.

As part of the prosecution's closing remarks Friday, Assistant Lampasas County Attorney John Greenwood said the presence of female DNA could not, in itself, eliminate Johnson as the shooter.

Ms. Epperson testified that Martinez wiped down the gun with a white towel, which Greenwood said could have removed the shooter's DNA. Ms. Epperson also mentioned finding, the day after Mrs. Gower's murder, a dark blue hooded sweatshirt and white KSwiss tennis shoes -- which both Ellison and Martinez testified that Ellison gave Johnson to wear the night of July 4 -- in the hotel room where she and Martinez were staying.

Ms. Epperson overheard her boyfriend chuckling about the clothes as "evidence," she testified.

In their testimonies Wednesday morning, area residents Steven Doyle and his wife, Sara Doyle, recalled seeing a dark-skinned male wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt walk down Boys Ranch Road about 8:30 or 9 p.m. on July 4. The couple, who were dating at the time, were standing in Doyle's driveway, about 60 yards from the man as he passed.

Shell closed on Friday by urging jurors to consider the "accomplice rule," which prevents the conviction of a defendant based on accomplices' testimonies alone unless additional evidence corroborates the testimony. The testimony of one accomplice does not supply sufficient corroboration for another participant's testimony, the rule also states.

Shell told the jury several of the state's key witnesses -- whom the defense attorney called "liars, drug dealers, cheaters, adulterers and capital murderers" -- testified dishonestly.

"They were making excuses," the defense attorney said. "They never really leveled with you."

As he left the courtroom after the reading of the verdict, Shell questioned whether the eight-woman, four-man jury had followed the accomplice rule.

"I'm just disappointed," he said of the conviction. "I don't think the law allowed for that."

Emotional reactions to Mrs. Gower's murder, Shell said, may have clouded the jury's judgment.

"It's hard for the jury when there's been a killing like this to step back and look at things objectively," he said.

Throughout the trial, Shell urged jurors to reject Ms. Edwards' answers in court. In their testimonies, both Texas Ranger Jesse Ramos and Lampasas County Sheriff's Investigator David Thorpe said Ms. Edwards lied repeatedly in her statements to them.

Johnson's attorney also described Ms. Edwards as Donald Gower's "lover," and he said the couple worked together to plan the murder of Hidi Gower, whom Donald Gower met in Kansas and married while engaged to Ms. Edwards.

Ms. Edwards' former landlady Brandi DeJesus-Davis, the only witness for the defense, testified Thursday afternoon that Gower -- whom Ms. Edwards referred to as her "husband" -- twice attempted to pay Ms. Edwards' rent for a home on Fritz Court in Copperas Cove. Ms. Edwards told Ms. DeJesus-Davis she and Gower would be "renewing their vows," and in June 2007 Ms. Edwards phoned to ask about purchasing the home on Fritz Court.

Ms. Edwards said she and her "husband" were anxious to buy the house in cash, as they would be receiving a large sum of money by July 8, 2007.

While Shell sought to discredit Ms. Edwards, the prosecution emphasized portions of her testimony that pointed to Johnson as Mrs. Gower's murderer.

Ms. Edwards, who was with Johnson at various times on July 4, testified that when Johnson and Martinez left her home that night about 8:20 p.m., Johnson was wearing Texas Longhorn flipflops, dark blue wind pants, a white undershirt and a white Tshirt. All the clothes appeared clean.

When Johnson returned about 9:50 p.m., he had mud on his hands, around his waist, on his ankles and splattered on both legs. When Ms. Edwards asked Johnson why his feet were not muddy, he told her Ellison had given him a black hooded sweatshirt and some shoes.

She also recalled watching a television report about Mrs. Gower's murder and asking Johnson if he had shot her. Johnson told her, "I needed the money," Ms. Edwards testified.

One juror, speaking on condition of anonymity after the trial, said the jury members considered Ms. Edwards' testimony "pretty much worthless."

Johnson's answers in an interview with Sheriff's Investigator Thorpe and Major Crimes Task Force Investigator John Seery, however, persuaded the jury to convict Johnson, the juror said. In the interview, recorded on DVD, Johnson described traveling on July 4 with Martinez, Ellison and Fred Moseby -- who was not charged -- to the Kempner VFW.

Johnson's answers in the interview matched most of the significant details of Ellison's and Martinez's testimonies, the juror said.

During testimony and cross-examination Thursday, Martinez described driving down Boys Ranch Road and surrounding streets on the evening of July 4, as he waited to pick up Johnson at the intersection of Boys Ranch Road and Quail Drive.

When Johnson got into Ms. Epperson's blue Buick Park Avenue, which Martinez had used to drive to the VFW, Johnson pulled the revolver out of the hooded sweatshirt Ellison had given him, Martinez testified.

Johnson told Martinez he had shot Mrs. Gower three times -- first in the chest and then in the head as she lay in the caliche parking lot. Johnson also said his victim had fallen "just like in the movies," Martinez testified.

Johnson removed the hooded sweatshirt and K-Swiss tennis shoes, Martinez testified, at the Relax Inn where Martinez and Ms. Epperson were staying.

Allison said Martinez gave the strongest testimony to link Johnson to the shooting.

"I don't think he had anything to hide," said the prosecuting attorney. "He is equally as guilty as Chaka Johnson, and I think his rendition of facts was shown to be truthful and to the point."

Shell, however, argued that after Martinez had been in jail and had begun to fear the death penalty he changed his story to pin the murder on Johnson.

Although Martinez testified that he gave Johnson a photograph of Donald and Hidi Gower -- which Martinez later burned in Ms. Epperson's car -- so Johnson could recognize his victim, Shell said this detail did not appear in Martinez's statement on July 9, the day of his arrest.

Martinez likely added the photograph to his story months after his arrest, Shell said, when Martinez remembered that Johnson had not seen Mrs. Gower before July 4. In addition, Ramos' investigation of Epperson's car revealed no ashes, the defense attorney said.

In other testimony Thursday, Chevell Fluelen, an acquaintance of Johnson's, said Johnson visited her home on July 3, a few days after his release from the Texas Department of Corrections. Surprised he did not seem happy, Ms. Fluelen asked Johnson if something was bothering him.

Johnson told her "he had something to do, and nobody could talk him out of it," Ms. Fluelen testified.

Shell argued that Johnson may have been referring to his plans to sell some heirlooms given to him by his grandfather, who died while Johnson was in prison.

Johnson did not testify during his trial, and he showed little emotion as 27th Judicial District Judge Joe Carroll read his verdict.

Gower's capital murder trial will begin Aug. 25, Allison said.

Martinez, who remains in the Bell County Jail on a $1 million bond, may choose a jury trial or may enter a guilty plea. If Martinez pleads guilty, Allison will consider recommending a sentence.

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