By Jeff Lehr
Globe Staff Writer
Jason Johnson apologized to Gary Black's girlfriend, Tammy Lawson, after brushing up against her, according to a clerk at a Joplin convenience store where the purported offense took place a few minutes before Johnson was fatally stabbed at a downtown intersection in 1998.
Prosecutors on Wednesday presented the jury at Black's retrial on a capital-murder charge with the deposition of Gary Pequignot, a former clerk at the Snak-Atak store at Fourth Street and St. Louis Avenue.
Black was convicted of first-degree murder by a Jasper County jury in 1999 and was sentenced to death. The conviction was overturned in 2004 by the Missouri Supreme Court, which cited ineffective assistance of counsel.
Pequignot, now deceased, was on duty the night of Oct. 2, 1998, when Johnson, a 28-year-old, black college student, brushed up against Lawson, then 29, inside the store. According to Pequignot, Johnson apologized to Lawson before she left the store.
The deposition was the final piece of evidence presented by prosecutors before the state rested its case against Black, 50, on Wednesday in Jasper County Circuit Court.
Pequignot's deposition seemed intended as a poignant capper to the prosecution's case against Black. Testimony has suggested that Lawson's resentment about the incident led to the fatal altercation between Black and Johnson at Fifth Street and Joplin Avenue.
The prosecution contends that Black and Lawson followed Johnson and his friends from the store to the downtown intersection, where Black got out of his car and stabbed Johnson in the neck through the passenger-side window of his friend Andy Martin's truck with a 6-inch knife.
Martin testified Wednesday that he saw Lawson pointing them out to Black when Johnson left the store and got in Martin's truck. Martin said he was not aware that Black and Lawson had followed him to the intersection.
He said that when they stopped for the traffic light at the intersection in the left lane of the one-way street, his attention was focused on two young women he recognized who were walking along the sidewalk on the east side of the street on their way to an automated teller machine. He said he never saw Black stab Johnson because his head was turned to talk to the women.
"I heard a loud bang," he told the court.
When he looked toward Johnson, he was getting out of the truck with blood pouring from his neck, Martin said. He explained that the noise he had heard was his truck door striking the open driver's-side door of Black's car alongside them in the right-hand lane.
He said he then saw Black between the two vehicles and watched Johnson sling a 40-ounce beer bottle he had bought at the store at Black. Martin said he thought the bottle either hit Black's car door or Black's person and broke.
Martin testified that he never saw Black throw a punch at Johnson, but that he did see Johnson try to punch Black as Black got back in his car and took off. Johnson was left stumbling in the street and bumped into the truck, he said.
"He just stood there and looked dazed," Martin said.
Once Johnson managed to get back in the truck, Martin said, he made an illegal turn left and pulled into the parking lot in the 500 block of South Joplin Avenue. He said he called for help, and he and others tried to stem the bleeding from Johnson's neck with towels and shirts.
Jamie Brandon, an employee of the Dolphin Club, the name at that time of the bar at that intersection, testified that he watched the altercation between Black and Johnson from just inside the door of the club. He said his attention was drawn to the street by some yelling he heard outside.
Brandon testified that he saw Black get out of his vehicle.
"He took about two steps toward the truck and lunged his hand through the window," Brandon said.
He said he saw the head of the passenger in the truck snap backward, in what he thought was an apparent attempt to avoid a punch. He said the passenger-side door of the truck then opened, and Johnson emerged. Brandon said Johnson took two or three steps toward Black and took some swings at him with what proved to be the beer bottle in a bag in his hand.
Brandon said he thought the beer bottle broke against the side of Black's car. He said Black retreated toward his car with Johnson grabbing him by the shirt as he got back behind his steering wheel and took off. He said Johnson took a few steps with the vehicle and then let go of Black.
Brandon testified that he called 911 and crossed Joplin Avenue to the parking lot when the truck pulled in there.
"I saw a stream of blood going down the side of the truck," he testified.
Brandon said he and others helped apply towels and shirts to Johnson's neck until an ambulance arrived.
Brandon was the second of the state's witnesses to testify that he saw Black throw what he thought was a punch through the open window of the truck. Mark Wolf, a friend of Martin's who was following Martin and Johnson in his car and was behind them at the intersection, testified Tuesday that he saw Black throw a jab through the window.
Neither of those two witnesses claimed to have seen a knife in Black's hand. But Lawson testified that Black tossed a knife in her lap when he got back in the car, and that he later threw the knife out of the car just outside Ozark Memorial Park Cemetery. The knife was recovered by police and has been entered as evidence in the trial.
Dr. Mitch Meier, a trauma surgeon at Freeman Hospital West, testified Wednesday that Johnson died three days later of complications caused by a single stab wound to his neck most likely made by a knife. The doctor said one of Johnson's jugular veins was severed, and that 75 percent of the diameter of a carotid artery was severed as well.
He said emergency medical personnel at the hospital had difficulty establishing an airway on Johnson once he reached the hospital because of the amount of blood coming out of his mouth and the size of the hematoma caused by the stab wound.
An emergency tracheotomy had to be performed before they could get Johnson to the operating room, where Meier used part of Johnson's severed jugular vein to construct a patch of the carotid artery, the doctor said.
He said Johnson later suffered a stroke that progressed to brain death as a consequence of the severity of his wound.
Lawson never testified that Johnson apologized to her, although she did acknowledge that she learned later that he had been intoxicated and may have brushed into her accidentally.
By Jeff Lehr