A Memphis man pleaded guilty to reduced charges in a deal that saved him from a jury trial in the 2009 murder of his codefendant’s mother and gets him out of jail Friday.
Christopher Johnson, 39, also gave vivid details during the plea hearing on Thursday about the woman’s son’s role in the death of 37-year-old Sherry Cooper.
Johnson pleaded guilty in Washington County Criminal Court Thursday to tampering with evidence and abuse of a corpse in the May 2009 strangulation of Cooper.
Her body was found inside a large red trash can — the ones used by Johnson City for residential trash — a day after investigators believe she was killed by being strangled with a belt.
Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks dismissed a felony murder charge. The tampering charge was amended down from first-degree murder.
Johnson’s attorney, Steve Finney, had argued all along that his client didn’t kill Cooper. He had fought to get Johnson’s videotaped interview with police excluded from a potential trial, but Judge Robert Cupp never ruled on it.
Finney negotiated a deal that allows Johnson to serve eight years on probation — six for tampering with evidence and two for abuse of a corpse — and get out of jail Friday morning.
Johnson has been in the county detention center since his arrest soon after Cooper’s death in 2009. Cupp had reduced Johnson’s bond to $5,000, but even that was too high for Johnson to post.
Brooks said he could not, in good conscience, go forward with a murder trial against Johnson.
“I’ve never stood before a jury on my own reasonable doubt and I’m not going to with Mr. Johnson,” Brooks said of his reason to offer the reduced plea.
During the hearing, Cupp asked Johnson about his involvement in Cooper’s death, and his explanation laid the blame for the killing on Cooper’s then-17-year-old son Codey Miller. Johnson acknowledged he brought the trash can into the apartment and helped Miller lift it, then he rolled it outside.
Johnson said he helped Miller because he was scared he would be accused of the murder. Johnson said Miller was angry with his mother because she and Johnson had sex that day and he caught Johnson putting his shirt back on.
“I was getting dressed, that was when her son ... came out of his room. He proceeded to have an argument with her about me being there ‘cause he was more comfortable with her talking to this other gentleman than me,” Johnson said, explaining further that Miller didn’t like his mother dating a black man.
At the time of her death, Cooper, was apparently seeing Johnson, who is black, and another man, who was white.
Johnson said the argument between Cooper and Miller involved her telling him to mind his own business and giving her space, Miller fussing because he said Cooper wouldn’t buy him school clothes.
Miller went to his bedroom, Johnson said, and returned with a belt.
“He had the belt in his right hand. He grabbed her by the collar and he tried to put the belt around her neck. That’s when she grabbed the belt and took it from him and threw it across the room,” Johnson said.
The argument continued throughout the apartment, so Johnson said he went outside to smoke a cigarette.
“This was a normal routine,” for the mother and son, he said. “I was maybe out there 15, 20 minutes waiting for them to finish arguing.
This was a routine thing. It finally calmed down, there was no more arguing going on. That’s when I came back into the house. Ms. Cooper was laying up on the couch. She was sitting up with her head leaned to the side. I assumed she was asleep., I tried to shake her to wake her up,” he said.
The second time he shook Cooper with no response, he went into Miller’s room to see what had happened.
“He was sitting at the edge of his bed with his hands crossed rocking back and forth.”
Miller didn’t answer when Johnson asked him what was wrong with Cooper. When Johnson returned to the living room, he realized Cooper was not breathing.
“That’s when I came to the conclusion, I realized she was dead,” he said.
And that’s when panic set in as well, Johnson said. He suggested to Miller that he needed to get rid of Cooper’s body until he could figure out what to do next.
“I stressed to him, you need to figure out what to with the body until you come up with something to do,” Johnson said.
Part of Johnson’s panic came from the mixed race relationship he had with Cooper and what the perception of police might be.
“I was afraid for myself,” Johnson said. “It’s the thing of being a black guy talking to a Caucasian woman.”
Johnson said he retrieved the trash can, but Miller did all the work to get the body into it.
“He tried to tilt it up. He couldn’t tilt it. That’s when proceeded to go over there and help pull the garbage can up because it was too heavy for him. Once pulled it up proceeded to push it to the back door. He couldn’t get it out the door so then rolled it out the back door and to the side of the house,” Johnson said.
He also testified he doesn’t know how neighbors didn’t hear the argument.
“I know they had to hear it. This was a every other day thing. The detectives kept asking me how come I never intervened. I was not the only one living at the house at the time. And the people that was living there was constantly telling me not to get in, mind my own business,” he said.
Johnson also described another violent incident when Cooper tried to get Miller up for school, but he cussed her out and threw a knife at her and another time he threw a plate at his mother.
“I have been there multiple times when the other people who was living there had to go in there and grab him and say, ‘We’ll give you a cigarette, we’ll give you this, we’ll do this for you. Codey just please get up and go to school,’” Johnson said.
He said Miller had to be “sweet talked” into attending school. The fact that Miller wasn’t interested in school had been well-established by testimony in previous hearings from his former teachers in the Johnson City school system. Miller spent most of his time in class asleep and rarely participated in classroom activities, teachers testified in earlier hearings.
Cupp said he would accept the reduced plea because he knows Brooks wouldn’t give away a case he believed he could prove.
“If Mr. Brooks tells me he can’t make a felony murder case, I have no choice but to believe him,” Cupp said.
Johnson is scheduled to be released Friday morning and will be allowed to serve his probation in Memphis.