Inmate meltdown disrupts court

By Terri Flagg -

DOBSON — An inmate’s lengthy — and loud — outburst waylaid an administrative session of Surry County Superior Court for a time Monday morning while officials dealt with the situation.

Aaron Lee Johnston, 35, of Spring Street, Kernersville, had been scheduled to appear for a bond hearing and was housed temporarily in the secured area located next to the courtroom.

Defense Attorney Karen Adams had met with Johnston briefly to discuss the matter when the defendant began yelling profanities at her.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge A. Moses Massey eventually cited Johnston with contempt when his expletive-laced yelling continued, loud enough to be easily heard by the full courtroom.

Massey indicated he would order the inmate be gagged if the bellowing continued.

Eight deputies and Sheriff Graham Atkinson stood guard along the left side of the courtroom while the judge conferred with Adams and Assistant District Attorney Tim Watson.

At one point, a series of loud banging noises erupted from Johnston’s cell.

Massey noted for the record that the noise level had increased with the defendant possibly “banging some object” against the cell, and that Johnston had “by his behavior, waived his right to be present in the courtroom” for the bond modification hearing.

Johnston had been arrested in April 2012 in connection with a Reeves Mill Road, Mount Airy, home invasion.

Atkinson stated at the time that a suspect had forced his way into the home of Terry Lee and Lisa McGraw Porter, who were both treated for injuries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center sustained in the home invasion.

Though Lisa Porter’s injuries were less serious, Terry Porter suffered from multiple stab wounds to the back and what police believed to be impact wounds to his head.

That same evening, deputies dispatched to a wreck on Rockford Street determined Johnston to be the driver of the vehicle, which was registered to Lisa Porter, according to the sheriff.

Johnston faces charges of attempted first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or seriously injure, two counts of kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon causing serious injury, two counts of felony larceny after breaking and or entering, three counts of felony possession of stolen goods or property, DWI, driving while license revoked and reckless driving in connection to the 2012 incident.

His bond was set at $500,000 secured following his initial arrest, according to information provided by the sheriff in April 2012.

In court Monday, with Johnston still bellowing a steady stream of profanities, Adams withdrew the motion for the bond hearing.

“If I am able to communicate at a later time I’ll refile the motion,” she said.

The court also addressed Johnston’s request that Adams be removed from his case.

The racket from behind the wall continued, causing someone in the gallery to comment, “Someone needs to pray for that man.”

Massey responded, “Someone needs to pray for those who have to listen to him,” then added, “as well as for him.”

Adams asked the judge if she could speak with her client in “the box” with the assistance of Johnston’s brother, who was present in the courtroom.

Watson declined to be heard on the request, and the sheriff said he had “no objection.”

After ensuring Adams and Johnston’s brother would be safely separated from the inmate, Massey approved her request and recessed court for the morning break.

When court came back in session the inmate had quieted.

Massey, noting that Johnston had made threats of violence and “continues to engage in the ‘f-word’ and what is abbreviated ‘g-d,’” while yelling and making noise at what was apparently his “maximum capacity,” cleared the courtroom “out of concern for the safety of everyone,” he said.

Officers of the court and media representatives were allowed to remain present if they chose, with only those involved in the case required to stay.

“It may be hazardous,” he said of Johnston’s appearance. “It has that potential.”

Johnston entered the courtroom with surprising poise.

“First and foremost I’d like to apologize for my actions thoroughly,” he stated politely, mentioning that he was facing substantial charges and was frustrated with his representation.

“I don’t feel anyone’s putting forth their best efforts,” he said.

The defendant, who is housed regularly in another county, said he’d only had about four hours of contact with Adams over the course of 1.5 years.

“I think I’m entitled to more than four hours when I’m putting my life into that person’s hand,” he said.

“I don’t feel that anybody’s going to give me a fair shake,” in Surry County, he continued. “It’s like a modern day witch hunt.”

The judge, noting that Adams was the defendant’s third appointed attorney, cautioned Johnston that the N.C. Supreme Court has made it “very clear” that “if a person continues to be dissatisfied with their legal representation without good cause,” that person could be found to have waived their “very valuable Constitutional right” to representation.

“I don’t know enough about this situation to know if you’ve reached that point, but you are heading in that direction,” Massey said. “There is that possibility and you need to be aware of it.”

Adams indicated to the court that “he may not see all the time and effort I’ve put into this case,” she stated.

After some more discussion regarding trial dates and additional competency evaluations, Johnston asked the court to “compel” Adams to represent him to the full extent of her capabilities.

“At this point in time I don’t feel like that has happened,” he said.

Adams “has a reputation of being a fighter for her clients, who will not hesitate to take a case before a jury,” Massey said.

The defense attorney indicated she would still work on the case but “he has to work with me too,” and have reasonable expectations, she said.

Watson spoke up to say that Adams had spent well over four hours just in conversations with him about the case, which also includes thousands of pages of discovery.

“She knows this case,” Watson said.

Massey brought the matter to a close.

“I admonish you to represent Aaron Lee Johnston to the very best of your ability,” he said to Adams.

And to Johnston: “A lawyer is not a Harry Potter. They don’t have a magic wand,” the judge said. “I admonish you to cooperate with your attorney,” he continued, “Your behavior this morning disrupted the courtroom tremendously.”

Massey eventually withdrew the contempt citation, “given the fact you’re in custody” and facing substantive charges.

“This is not the way to advance your case, sir,” the judge said. “Your behavior hurts you in every way possible.”

Johnston apologized again.

“I accept your apology,” Massey said. “Please, for your sake, continue to conduct yourself as you have for the last ten minutes.”

By Terri Flagg

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

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