Ruben Myran Johnson was convicted in 2001 of first-degree murder, assisting a criminal street gang, first-degree burglary and armed robbery. The convictions stemmed from a November, 2000, robbery at Affordable Massage in Phoenix and the subsequent murder of Stephanie Smith, a witness to the robbery. A sentencing jury recommended the death penalty. On direct appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the convictions and sentences. The court held that the commission of a murder to eliminate a witness to another crime is a sufficient basis to find the murder was especially heinous or depraved. The court also held that the trial court did not err by failing to sever the trial of charges against Johnson; that the aggravating factors applied were given adequate specificity through jury instructions; that evidence of Johnson’s gang affiliation was properly admitted as probative of motive and not unduly prejudicial; that the defendant was not entitled to question prospective jurors about their views on specific mitigating circumstances; that the admission of a video clip excerpt of Johnson’s police interrogation was properly admissible to support testimony of the State’s mental health expert; and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to instruct jurors regarding specific items of mitigation evidence.
Chief Justice McGregor wrote the opinion for the unanimous court.