Fellowship of

P.O. Box 268
Columbia, Missouri
email: jstack@coin.org

Help Halt Jim Johnson’s January 9 Execution

What you can do

When Jim Johnson killed during the Vietnam War, the government supported him. But when his post-traumatic stress disorder led him to kill again 20 years later, he was sentenced to death. Johnson is scheduled to be executed Jan. 9 for the deaths of three Missouri law enforcement officers and a sheriff’s wife.

On Dec. 9, 1991, Moniteau County deputy Les Roark responded to a domestic dispute call at the Johnson home in Jamestown. Johnson had been arguing with his wife Jerri and her daughter from a previous marriage. As Roark was leaving, having decided everything was OK, Johnson shot him. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, Johnson loaded his car with three guns and several boxes of ammunition. He then drove 15 miles to the home of Kenny Jones, the Moniteau County sheriff, where he shot Jones’ wife Pam through a window.

Johnson’s next stop was the home of deputy Russell Borts, who had just returned home to change his clothes. He was shot through a window but survived. While responding to Borts’ attack, Cooper County sheriff Charles Smith was gunned down. Minutes later, Miller County deputy Sandra Wilson was shot in her car. Johnson hid in a nearby home for 10 hours before surrendering.

We of FOR extend condolences to the victims’ family members and friends. We condemn both Johnson’s actions and his upcoming execution, as well as the loss of Vietnamese and U.S. lives during the Vietnam War. There is no doubt that Johnson was responsible for the four murders, but there are several issues that must not be ignored.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Johnson spent four months in Southeast Asia fighting in Vietnam. Among his many frightening close encounters with war, include his first day on the battlefield on 12 June 1970(according to the Columbia Daily Tribune 18 October 1992):

Soldiers within his army company set out on night patrol to set an ambush for Vietcong forces near Tam Ky. U.S. soldiers spotted two Viet Cong fighters dressed in black and shot them to death. The gunfire attracted a much larger fighting force which was lying their own ambush. “C company found itself caught in the crossfire of whistling mortar rounds, AK-47 gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.” Gunships, called in to pick up the some of the 13 wounded U.S. troops (many of whom later died), were repelled by the Vietcong. A U.S. jetfighter soon after dropped a 750-pound napalm bomb which killed probably dozens of Vietcong individuals and obliterated the area.

Only a million of the 2.8 million Vietnam veterans ever saw active combat. About 500,000 of those veterans are estimated to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD usually manifests in three ways:

1. Intrusion. In people with PTSD, memories of the trauma reoccur unexpectedly, and flashbacks intrude into their current lives. It may be so strong that individuals almost feel like they are actually experiencing the trauma again or seeing it unfold before their eyes. Because of their terrifying nightmares, they may develop insomnia.

Jerri Johnson testified that her husband had been having nightmares for nearly a year before the murders. Sometimes he’d jump up, grab his gun and go outside. During those nights, one of his lawyers believe Johnson performed night patrols reminiscent of his Vietnam duties. Johnson was dressed in camouflage fatigues when he committed the murders.

2. Avoidance. These symptoms affect relationships with others. The inability of people with PTSD to work out grief and anger over the traumatic event means the trauma can continue to affect their behavior without their being aware of it. Depression is a common product of this inability to resolve painful feelings.

Before the murders, Johnson showed signs of depression. His irritability and unhappiness distanced friends and family. His marriage was falling apart. During his first month in jail, his depression led him to attempt suicide on an exercise machine by dropping 110 pounds of weight on his head.

3. Hyperarousal. PTSD can cause those who have it to act as if they are constantly threatened by the trauma that caused their illness. They can become suddenly irritable or explosive, even when they are not provoked. This constant feeling that danger is near causes exaggerated startle reactions.         In 1990, as tensions flared in the Persian Gulf, Johnson worried his unit would be called up. He couldn’t escape memories of Vietnam, which led him to feel serious anxiety. Jerri Johnson testified that you couldn’t approach him unannounced because “you might get decked.” The night of the murders, Jim Johnson said, he saw enemy uniforms and fired like he was taught. Only the people he killed this time weren’t the Vietcong.

Johnson’s character

As a child, Johnson loved animals, music and religion. When he wasn’t at church or working on his father’s farm, he liked to ride around town with his kittens in the front basket of his bike.

As an adult, he was known for his good deeds. In 1990, when a family friend lost everything in a fire, Johnson started a fund drive anonymously with a $100 bill. Later that year, when Dallas Cooper, a close friend, was killed in a helicopter crash, Johnson stepped forward to help the widow and her children. He put Cooper’s estate in order and made sure his tools were sold at a fair price. When a friend was away during the Persian Gulf crisis, Johnson cut firewood for his family and fixed their car.

Just days before the murders, Johnson joined some friends to play cards. One of them was Borts, the lone survivor of the attacks. Even after the crime, Borts said, “As  far as I was concerned then, he was family. You couldn’t ask for a better person.”

During Johnson’s 10-hour hide out, he stayed in the home of Dorothymae Miller, an 83-year-old widow who had left her door unlocked. While he was there, Miller said, Johnson was polite and watched TV with her. They even prayed together for the town and the victims. At one point, Johnson asked Miller for her car. She refused, saying it was the first new car she had ever owned. He could have easily killed her and made a dash for the county border, but he didn’t. If Johnson was truly a murderer, he would have had no qualms about killing one more person. Instead, he stayed at Miller’s home until he surrendered. In the years he’s spent at Potosi Correctional Center, Johnson has worked as a chaplain’s assistant. He believes he survived his suicide for a reason, and he’s turned to God with sincerity and fervor. He leads the chapel music, helps set up services and programs and counsels fellow prisoners when they’ re unhappy.

“It’s so great when you can help somebody,” Johnson says. “Even just saying, ‘I love you, brother’ or ‘you did a good job’ – words men around hear are starved to hear. I know that many times on the outside, I needed somebody to help me get through the day, and it didn’t happen. And I don’t want other people to have to go through that.”

It’s hard to tell what set Johnson off onto his violent path across Moniteau County. Diana Cooper, the widow of Dallas said, “Their personalities were a lot alike. They kept a lot of things inside them. I know Jimmy was extremely upset over Dallas’ death, but I don’t know if that’s what set him off...This isn’t the Jimmy I knew.  It could have been a culmination of several things. But it brought one fact home to me.  There’s a very fine line between reality and insanity.  Each of us have that line, but none of us know what will push us over the edge.”

 It’s assumed by many in our society that families support the execution of the person who killed their loved one. That’s not the case with Betty Smith, widow of Sheriff Charles Smith. “I think she should get life in prison with no parole,” she told the Columbia Daily Tribune (18 October 1992). January is a time for remembering the past and looking ahead to the future. We pray that the new year will bring an end to Missouri’s death penalty and not to Jim Johnson’s life.
---Megan Clark

What You Can Do

Gov. Bob Holden. Urge him to halt the Jim Johnson’s execution and commute his sentence to life.

Write:Capitol Bldg. 216, Jefferson City, Mo. 65101
Fax: 573-751-1495
Phone: 573-751-3222

Tuesday, January 8, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Outside Governor’s Office, 2nd Floor Capitol Bldg.
      5-6 p.m. Boone Co. Courthouse, Columbia
      6:30 p.m. Prayer Vigil, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church (204 E. Ash, Columbia)
      11 p.m.-12 midnight State Capitol (High Street), Jefferson City (10 p.m. carpool at Boone Co. Courthouse)

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