After hours of jury selection, the homicide trial for the 2012 shooting death of Toriano “Snap” Cooper opened Monday afternoon in Douglas County Circuit Court.
The case against Tiawain Albert Johnson is straightforward, District Attorney Dan Blank told 13 jurors. Johnson’s attorney, Aaron Nelson, argued the state’s witnesses may not be credible.
“It’s up to you to decide ‘is their word good enough for you to believe beyond a reasonable doubt,’” he said.
Cooper was shot the morning of Jan. 15, 2012, while working on a car outside 1901 N. 12th St. He managed to run into his home and say “They got me. Call the police.” But he was pronounced dead on the scene by paramedics.
Johnson, 22, of Chicago was charged with first-degree intentional homicide in June 2013.
Blank laid out the state’s circumstantial case against Johnson with pictures of upcoming witnesses, residences and their connections.
“There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle,” he said. “This is not a 100 percent CSI case.” Rather, it’s from the real streets of Superior. Evidence to be introduced ranges from video and phone records to the testimony of half a dozen convicted criminals.
“Everyone’s going to have baggage with their testimony,” Blank said. “They all have lengthy histories; some have plea bargains; some don’t.” But key pieces of evidence kept quiet from the public, like the type of gun used, and corroboration between testimonies link Johnson to the murder. The case is about making connections, the district attorney said.
“It could be a long week but I know you’re here to do a job,” Blank told the jurors. “The state will present evidence to help you do that.”
Blank told the jury that Cooper had a street life involving drugs. He helped plan a robbery where money and drugs were taken at gunpoint from Johnson, his girlfriend and two young children.
“He was so upset that he started talking almost immediately about settling the score, getting revenge, having a motive to find Snapper and taking care of business,” Blank said.
Two brothers who are facing felony drug charges will testify that they heard Johnson say he shot Cooper. One of the brothers claims Johnson took his girlfriend’s car the night before and he got a call from Johnson on his cell phone that Sunday morning. Johnson told him “I did it; I got him. I got to get out of here.”
Three other men who were inmates at the Douglas County Jail at the same time as Johnson will also share what they heard him say about the murder.
Nelson is skeptical of the testimony.
“One of the things you have to ask yourself is: ‘Why would they say what they said?’” Nelson said, pointing to plea agreements for the two brothers that would reduce their prison sentences from a possible maximum of 200 years in prison each to five and four years respectively. Other witnesses are hoping for something in exchange for their testimony as well, Nelson said.
He gave the jury a timeline synopsis, asking why the brothers came forward with information about the shooting three months after their arrest for dealing drugs.
It is his contention the car seen in the neighborhood the day of the shooting contained the two brothers. The car belonged to one brother’s girlfriend, he said, and the other brother matches the shooter’s description far better than his client. The story about Johnson started with them, Nelson said, and others began to parrot their story.
“These are the two people that start the domino effect, ‘Johnson did it, Johnson did it,’” the attorney said.
Prior to that, Johnson wasn’t even a possible suspect in the Superior police investigation. Nelson asked the jury to see that justice is done.
“Justice requires that the right man be convicted, not the wrong man,” Nelson said.
The trial is expected to last a week. If convicted, Johnson faces life imprisonment.