The year and a half since Elania Johnson’s untimely death has been “pure hell” for her family, her sister Debbie Howard says.
Testifying Tuesday, Howard said her mother has been a nervous wreck since the 2018 shooting that killed Johnson.
“My mother, she sees a psychiatrist. She goes to counseling. She takes medications,” Howard said. “And just when you think she’s having a good day, here come the tears.”
Prosecutors rested their case Tuesday afternoon in a sentencing hearing against Jeffrey Mickens, a Carthage man accused of shooting Johnson and Johnson’s daughter, kidnapping Johnson’s granddaughter and taking part in an armed standoff with the Panola County Sheriff’s Office.
Mickens’ defense lawyer Rick Hagan — who took on the case again at the request of Mickens after Mickens had previously said he would defend himself — will take up his part of the process on July 1. The delay is due to a planned psychological evaluation of Mickens that Hagan has requested for his defense.
Hagan estimated his part of the sentencing hearing would take a day before any rebuttal from prosecutors and closing remarks are made. It’s after that point where the case would be left up to 123rd District Judge LeAnn Rafferty to consider and impose punishment.
Mickens previously pleaded guilty to murder, attempted capital murder of a peace officer, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
All but the aggravated assault charge are first-degree felonies, meaning they carry a punishment range of five to 99 years or life in prison. The aggravated assault charge is a second-degree felony and carries a punishment range of two to 20 years and a fine up to $10,000. Mickens is not eligible for probation.
Tuesday’s proceedings included testimony from expert witnesses on forensic and DNA evidence. Nathan Tunnel, a firearms examiner from the DPS Crime Lab, testified that he was able to connect fired shell casings found at the scene to a gun surrendered by Mickens. He was not able to connect bullet fragments found within Johnson to that gun because they were too damaged.
Hagan took that opportunity in cross-examination to poke holes in the state’s case.
“OK, so, let me see if I can sum up your opinions after examining the weapon and the cartridges and the bullet fragments,” he said. “The weapon functioned.”
— “Yes, sir,” Tunnel said.
“And the bullets, bullet fragments, you were unable to rule them in or out of being fired from that gun?” Hagan asked.
— “That’s correct,” Tunnel said.
Reade Quinton, then-deputy chief medical examiner at the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences, testified about his autopsy findings from examining Johnson’s body.
Quinton said he identified six gunshot wounds: One on the left shoulder that entered the chest, one that went through the right arm, two that were in the right thigh, and two graze wounds on the right forearm.
The most lethal bullet traveled from her left arm into her chest, where it struck both lungs and her aorta, Quinton said.
Hagan had Quinton participate in a demonstration of bullet trajectories during cross-examination, with Hagan acting as Johnson — seated in the driver’s seat.
“What about the wound from the left shoulder?” Hagan asked.
— “You’d have to have someone shooting from the driver’s side window,” Quinton said.
“OK. So that’s not consistent, that wound is not consistent with someone shooting from the (passenger’s) side?” Hagan asked.
— “The one on the left shoulder, the gun would have to be here, so if she’s in the driver’s position, the gun’s most likely out that window, not in the passenger,” Quinton said.
“So someone standing, shooting into the car from the passenger’s side could not have caused the wound on the left shoulder?” Hagan asked.
— “Assuming all of that scenario is, then that’s correct.” Quinton said.
Howard was the last person called to testify, describing her last phone conversations with Johnson that day. Howard talked about her love for her sister and her concerns about the friendship Johnson had with Mickens.
“Her demeanor was very solemn, very quiet,” Howard said of the last two phone calls she had with Johnson. “So when something was bothering Elania, she would just shut down. She didn’t like to argue, and she had relayed... we had a conversation about this person here and she was just telling me that she was tired of, that she felt sorry for him—”
Howard’s last words to her sister were “I love you.” Howard said Johnson was funny and giving, although personal about her private life.
“She was a very fun, outgoing person,” Howard said. “She loved to ride motorcycles. She was a great grandmother to her grandchildren. She was a great daughter. She was a blessed sister. She was my heart. She was.”
Howard recalled a running joke between the sisters.
“I remember when she was born and I was quite jealous because, you know, somebody else came in,” Howard said. “And I threw her down the stairs. And you know, I think about that all of the time, and we laugh and joke about it. I would tell her ‘I would never throw you down the stairs now,’ and she would joke and say ‘Well, you can’t pick me up’ because she was kind of hefty.”
Howard testified she had only spoken to Mickens once before on the phone.
“He said ‘Man, I don’t know what’s wrong with your sister. I don’t know what’s wrong with Elania. I don’t know why she’s trippin’.” Howard testified. “I said ‘What are you talking about?’ He said ‘Man, she don’t want it — she won’t do right.’ And Elania was in the background and was like ‘I told you we were only friends and we’re only going to be friends.’ And he just kept saying ‘No, no, I don’t know why you trippin’. I don’t know why you trippin’, Elania.’”