No one disputes that former California Highway Patrol Officer Tomiekia Johnson had a tumultuous relationship with her husband. What's in question is whether she fatally shot him in the head two years ago by accident or in cold blood.
On the opening day of trial Tuesday for Johnson, 32, who is charged with murder in the death of her husband, Marcus Lemons, attorneys presented jurors two differing versions of what happened on the side of a road in Compton the night of Feb. 21, 2009.
Prosecutors portrayed Johnson as a wife with an aggressive personality and a tendency to drink excessively. Her husband was described as a peaceful man, a popular barber and a renowned amateur bowler. The defense countered that Lemons was the aggressor in the relationship and routinely abused Johnson both verbally and physically.
In her opening statement, Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Natalie Adomian led the jury through a 40-minute outline of the case, focusing on forensic evidence — vomit and blood patterns, gunshot residue — that prosecutors said would prove that Johnson fired an intentional contact shot. Prosecutors also noted that Johnson had received extensive weapons training as a CHP officer.
As the audience, filled with friends and family members of both Lemons and Johnson, somberly looked on, Lemons' mother silently wiped away tears and averted her eyes from the crime-scene images projected onto a screen in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom. Johnson, dressed neatly in a navy blue suit, bowed her head and wept openly.
For more than a year, sheriff's investigators reconstructed the events that led to Lemons' death. Johnson, who had worked for the CHP since 2002, was placed in an administrative position after the killing. She was arrested in January 2011 but has been free on $2-million bail.
Johnson was having drinks with her husband at a T.G.I. Friday's and was talking to another man at the bar before she and Lemons began arguing, prosecutors told the jury. Johnson then paid the bill and took the car keys, and the couple left shortly before 11 p.m.
Johnson pulled over at Wilmington Avenue and Artesia Boulevard, off the 91 Freeway. Prosecutors said evidence will show that both Johnson and Lemons got out of the car and confronted each other. According to Adomian, Johnson pushed her husband back into the front passenger seat and shot him in the head.
She then drove to her parents' house a few miles away, with the body in the car, and her mother called 911, Adomian told the jury. Authorities found a purse on the driver's side of the car with Johnson's IDs and the gun tucked in the side pocket.
"This was an intentional murder," Adomian said, "and not out of self-defense."
But in his opening statement, defense attorney Darryl A. Stallworth painted a starkly different picture of the couple's relationship and what occurred that evening, calling much of what the prosecutors had presented "speculation rather than fact."
Stallworth focused on an incident that occurred days before Lemons' death. On Feb. 15, 2009, the couple were driving back from a bowling event in Las Vegas when they began to fight, the attorney said. When the argument escalated, Johnson told her husband to pull over and she ran to a nearby truck stop and called 911.
Stallworth played a recording of the 911 call, in which a distressed Johnson says her husband has her gun.
"This is important because what happened that night parallels what happened the night of Feb. 21," Stallworth said. "This is why she wanted to drive."
Stallworth said Johnson wanted to get off the freeway the night of the shooting because Lemons was starting to "choke her out." Johnson told her husband to get out of the car and walk home, Stallworth said. A fight ensued, then Lemons took Johnson's purse and pulled out the gun, the attorney told the jury. The couple struggled over the weapon and when Johnson was finally able to pick it up off the ground, Stallworth said, "the gun went off."
The idea that Johnson committed a premeditated, intentional killing makes no sense, Stallworth told the jurors. She was acting in self-defense, he said, which led to Lemons' "tragic death."
"This is a tragedy," Stallworth said, "not a crime."