A prominent South Georgia prosecutor, lauded for his success in capital prosecutions, has a history of misconduct in those cases, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative report has disclosed. Longtime Brunswick Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney John B. Johnson III, who joined the five-county prosecutor’s office in 1977, “has a dark legacy of problem cases,” the paper reports, including repeatedly withholding evidence from the defense in death penalty cases.

The investigative report was published two weeks after a Glynn County court overturned the conviction of Dennis Perry of the murders of two African-American churchgoers during a bible study class in 1985. Johnson had capitally prosecuted Perry even after the lead investigators in the case had determined he could not have been at the church at the time of the murders. Johnson presented testimony from the mother of Perry’s ex-girlfriend, claiming he had told her he planned to kill one of the victims. Johnson withheld evidence from the defense that the witness was to receive $12,000 in reward money for her testimony. New DNA evidence implicates an alternate suspect, a white man who, the Journal-Constitution investigation showed, had bragged that he had killed two ni****rs and had manufactured a false alibi for the murders.

Johnson fought to prevent Perry from receiving a hearing on his appeal and then to delay the hearing, arguing that Perry had waived his appeals in exchange for Johnson dropping the death penalty after the conviction. Johnson — who the Journal-Constitution reported once said he was “‘directed by God’ to try cases and send criminals to prison” — said of Perry’s appeal, “I don’t care what anybody else says. A defendant agreed to not appeal, and we’re supposed to just roll over? No, our obligation is to investigate and to oppose the motion because we had an agreement.” The court freed Perry July 23, 2020, pending the prosecutor’s a decision on whether to attempt to retry him.

The Journal-Constitution report detailed numerous instances in which Johnson — whom the state prosecutors association once named the top assistant district attorney in the state — had withheld key physical evidence and failed to inform the defense about benefits witnesses received for their testimony. Brian Kammer, a professor at Mercer University School of Law and a former director of the Georgia Death Penalty Resource Center, said that “the Brunswick Judicial Circuit has been terribly ill-served by Johnson’s brazen misconduct, yet he is astonishingly still employed.”

In a statement, District Attorney Jackie Johnson defended her chief deputy, claiming that “John has done more for victims of violent crime and public safety than anyone in South Georgia.”

One of the defendants Johnson prosecuted, Jimmy Meders, came within hours of execution in January 2020 before the Georgia parole board granted him clemency. Meders was convicted of armed robbery and murder in 1989 and sentenced to death. Meders steadfastly maintained his innocence, testifying that the murder was actually committed by the prosecution’s key witness, Bill Arnold.

Meders told police that he and Arnold had been together in the hours preceding the murder and that Arnold had fired Meders’ weapon into trucks at two separate locations. Arnold denied ever handling Meders’ gun. Johnson, who was aware of these claims, failed to report to the judge and jury that witnesses at each of the locations where Arnold had allegedly fired shots had called 911 to report the incident. Jurors specifically asked the judge during deliberations whether or not there were police reports filed about the gunfire. When asked about his decision to conceal the police reports, Johnson noted that “obviously, from the question, it was important to the jury. But the question is whether it was important to me and the answer is no.”

During the appeals process, Meders sought DNA testing of the gun to establish the identity of the shooter. Georgia prosecutors opposed his motion and the courts refused to authorize the testing.

Johnson also committed misconduct in the capital trial of Larry Jenkins, a then-17-year old boy who was sentenced to death in 1998 for the murders of a local laundromat owner and his son. In that case, Johnson failed to disclose that the star witness in his case had given statements to police that contradicted her trial testimony — including that she didn’t recognize the person whom she saw drop the murder weapon. The prosecution also unlawfully withheld from the defense evidence that implicated another suspect. In 2005, a DeKalb County judge found that the prosecution had “committed intentional misconduct” and granted Jenkins a new trial.

A “full spectrum of prosecutorial misconduct” by Johnson led to the wrongful conviction of Georgia death-row exoneree Lawrence William (Larry) Lee. No physical evidence implicated Lee in the 1986 murders of Clifford, Nina, and Jerold Jones. Nonetheless, Johnson obtained a conviction and death sentence based upon what the Butts County Superior Court later described as “a weak prosecution case dependent for its success on the believability of two witnesses unfavored in the law and by the public — a jailhouse snitch and a co-conspirator.” The court found that the prosecution lied to the defense and the court that it had no exculpatory evidence in its files, while concealing evidence that contradicted the testimony or undermined the credibility of each of its key witnesses.

The prosecution also unconstitutionally denied the defense access to the physical evidence and then presented evidence and argument it knew to be false that misled the jury into believing that Lee had been in possession of guns stolen from the victims’ home. The prosecution also concealed evidence that linked two other suspects to the murders and subsequently lost or destroyed 47 latent fingerprints and 15 unknown hairs recovered from the scene that did not match Lee.

One of the key pieces of evidence was a rug from the family room of the Jones’ home that could have been tested for forensic evidence. An August 1999 memo signed by Johnson instructed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to destroy the rug, adding “even if the case were to have to be retried, I would not expect this item to be introduced into evidence or needed.” He later gave sworn testimony claiming he had not instructed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to destroy any of the evidence in Lee’s case.

“John has been the big dog of the field” in the Brunswick Judicial District prosecutor’s office, said local defense lawyer, Newell Hamilton, who defended three capital cases against Johnson. “He’s extremely effective in a courtroom. … But nobody really had any control over him. I don’t know how he was allowed to stay and keep up with his shenanigans.”


Bill Rankin, Brad Schrade, and Joshua Sharpe, Dark lega­cy of over­turned con­vic­tions trails long­time pros­e­cu­tor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 24, 2020; Joshua Sharpe, Man walks free after con­vic­tion tossed in Georgia church mur­ders, July 23, 2020; Joshua Sharpe, Conviction over­turned in Ga. church mur­ders case, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 17, 2020; The Imperfect Alibi: An AJC Investigation.

Read the court’s order grant­i­ng a new tri­al to Dennis Perry.