Rifle murder suspect headed for trial | VailDaily.com

Rifle murder suspect headed for trial

John Gardner
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Heath Johnston

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A Garfield County judge on Tuesday set an April court date in the first-degree murder trial of Heath Johnston.

Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Gail Nichols denied a request from public defender Steve McCrohan for a 45-day continuance before setting a trial date. McCrohan said that more time was needed to determine if a second mental examination would be sought by the defense.

Johnston, 21, recently returned from a mental examination at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. Johnston was ordered by the court to undergo the evaluation in October, despite arguments by the defense that Johnston’s participation in the examination was a violation of his right to not self-incriminate.

The mental examination report was sealed Tuesday by Judge Nichols.

Judge Nichols set the case for a 14-day jury trial to begin on April 12.

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While Judge Nichols went ahead and set the trial date, she said that the April date still allows the defense to seek a mental examination of their own, if they choose to.

Nichols assumed that the three-week time frame requested for trial was because the defense was going to proceed to trial with the current plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. McCrohan contested that assumption.

“I’m not assuming that. That is why I asked not to set a trial today,” McCrohan told Judge Nichols.

McCrohan must file a motion with the court by Jan. 22 if they decide to seek the second examination. They then have until March 12 to provide the examination report to prosecutors to prepare for trial, Nichols said.

Nichols also stipulated that Johnston will have until March 12 to withdraw the not guilty by reason of insanity plea. At which time, the defense could enter a straight “not guilty” plea and proceed to trial, or, theoretically, could agree to a plea deal if one is available.

“I think that depends on if we are going to get a second evaluation and what the results of that evaluation are,” McCrohan said.

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson would not comment if a plea deal is on the table, after Tuesday’s hearing.

Johnston is charged for allegedly killing his brother, Sam Johnston, 26, by shooting him in the back of the head with a shotgun on Dec. 15, 2008.

Beeson has decided against seeking the death penalty for Johnston. If found guilty of first-degree murder, Johnston faces life in prison.

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