Opening arguments made as Johnson retrial begins in earnest


Last updated 6/10/2021 at 11:51am

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Defendant Shane Johnson sits in state District Court in the Hill County Courthouse Tuesday during jury selection in his trial on a charge of negligent homicide. Johnson is accused of shooting his brother, Travis Johnson, in 2013.

After a day of jury selection Tuesday, opening arguments in the retrial of a Havre man convicted of negligent homicide in 2014 in the shooting death of his brother were made Wednesday morning in state District Court in the Hill County Courthouse.

Attorneys representing Johnson and the state made their opening arguments before the jury. The arguments are similar to the cases made in the first trial in 2014, but this time the state will be arguing that the evidence presented will clearly show that Johnson is guilty of negligent homicide instead of that or deliberate homicide.

The defense again argued that the death of Johnson's brother was a tragic accident, the result of an altercation ultimately caused by poor judgement on the part of Shane Johnson's brother, Travis, fueled in part by alcohol.

Johnson had appealed his 2014 conviction, arguing the court made errors in allowing the jury unrestricted access to all of the state's testimonial audio and video exhibits during deliberations and by allowing the state to add a negligent homicide charge at the end of trial that was not included within the deliberate homicide charge for which the state tried Johnson.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled that select errors had been made and overturned the verdict, sending the case back to District Court in Havre last fall for a new trial.

At the end of Shane Johnson's trial in September 2014, the jury could not agree on a verdict on a charge of deliberate homicide but convicted him of negligent homicide.

He was sentenced to 52 years in prison with 10 suspended, with District Judge Dan Boucher citing his lengthy criminal history and declaring him a persistent felony offender in imposing a 50-year sentence and adding a two-year enhancement for use of a weapon in a violent offense.

The prosecution this year, after the case was sent back to court in Hill County, amended the charges to negligent homicide with a sentencing enhancement for using a dangerous weapon in the offense.

Prosecuting attorney Daniel M. Guzynski's opening argument Wednesday laid out what the state contends happened the night Johnston's bother Travis was killed back in the fall of 2013.

Guzynski said the brothers were originally in the living room of their mother's house, where they lived at the time, drinking, when a fight broke out, one that ended in a bloody nose for Shane Johnson. Guzynski said the blood from that injury will be a significant part of state's case and acts as a kind of GPS, showing where Johnson went.

"At some point, as sometimes happens with brothers, a fight ensued, during that fight Mr. Johnson was struck on the nose by Travis and Mr. Johnson's nose bled," he said. "From that nose bleed will come some of the most significant evidence in this case."

Guzynski laid out what the state would show to support their case for what happened that night, including the defendant's blood found under the bed where the murder weapon, a pistol, was kept, and on an envelope found beside the case the gun was taken from on top of a bed.

He said the state would demonstrate the reliability of DNA evidence found from the blood as well as what the condition of the crime scene, including blood spatter and the trajectory of bullets fired from the weapon say about what happened.

He said the crime lab that examined the evidence is credible, and experts will be called to explain the particulars of the evidence at the scene.

Guzynski said Shane Johnson was found in his bed under the blankets with the pistol nearby after EMTs had taken his brother from the scene, attempting to save his life shortly after their mother found him upon coming home. She had been out of the house during the incident.

He said the state would also address comments made by Johnson while being taken into custody that were recorded.

After the prosecution finished its opening arguments Assistant Public Defender Stephanie McKnight rose to make the case for her client, contending that the events that took place the night of Travis Johnson's death were tragic, but do not warrant conviction.

She said after being struck by his brother, Shane Johnson went to bed, but his brother, in a state of rage and intoxication took the gun from under Johnson's bed.

She said her client, upon realizing that his brother had taken the weapon, followed him intending to take it back for fear that he would hurt himself or someone else.

"We don't know why he decided to grab that pistol, but Shane, rightfully so, thought that Travis was either going to hurt himself or someone else with it," McKnight said. "... Shane had also been drinking, but he knew enough to know that Travis should not have a gun."

She said a struggle over the weapon ensued that ended in the accidental death of Travis Johnson.

She said the defense will show that the weapon was on a hair trigger which caused it to go off in a chaotic fashion during the struggle, and the DNA of both her client and his brother can be found on the weapon, including the trigger area.

McKnight said the death of Travis Johnson was a tragedy, but the state's depiction of the defendant as guilty of negligent homicide is inaccurate.

She said the defense would show that Travis Johnson was intoxicated, in a rage and determined to hurt her client, and ultimately his actions lead to this event.

"The state will try to paint Shane as the negligent one, but only one person in that house that night was so angry and so drunk that he beat another person," she said, "and that person was Travis."

She said the defendant retreated to bed after the altercation because he was not in the right frame of mind, having been pummeled in the head by his brother not long before and having just witnessed a deeply traumatic event.

"No one intended for Travis to end up dead that night, and my client certainly wishes his brother was still here," McKnight said. "But the reality of that night, November the 9th, 2013, is that Travis was intoxicated with alcohol, he was violent with rage, and he had a gun, and those are three things that just don't lead to happy endings, but they do lead to tragic accidents. And what happened to Travis on that night in November in 2013 was just that. It was a tragic accident."


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