The mother of Alex Johnson, the University of Kentucky chef whose body was found in a barrel in the Kentucky River, will be allowed to testify next week in the trial of his accused killer, a judge ruled Friday.
Judy Johnson will be called as the prosecution’s first witness in the trial of Robert Markham “Mark” Taylor, who is accused in the late 2013 beating and slaying of Alex Johnson, 32. Taylor, 31, is charged with murder, kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
Jury selection in the trial is scheduled to begin Monday.
Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark overruled a defense motion that sought to exclude Judy Johnson’s testimony. Clark said he will limit her testimony so it doesn’t become a “victim impact statement,” which is typically reserved for the penalty phase of a trial after a conviction when a jury recommends a sentence.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrea Williams said the prosecution wants Judy Johnson to tell a little about her son “as a living person” to show that he was more than a crime statistic.
The defense argued that Judy Johnson was being called to elicit “sympathy from the jury,” public defender Sandra Downs said.
“Listen, I’m a mother. I have utmost sympathy for this woman,” Downs said after Friday’s status hearing. “But our job is to protect our client.”
In a 1998 decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court said that “a murder victim can be identified as more than a naked statistic, and statements identifying the victims as individual human beings with personalities and activities does not unduly prejudice the defendant or inflame the jury.” The Supreme Court also said that a jury can “hear an adequate word description of the victim as long as the victim is not glorified or enlarged.”
Johnson’s body was found in January 2014 inside a barrel in four feet of water in the Kentucky River. Johnson was a chef at the UK’s Hilary J. Boone Center.
Timothy Ballard, 44, is expected to testify at trial that, after Johnson was killed, Taylor and Ballard went back to Johnson’s apartment to get marijuana and money.
Ballard pleaded guilty in April to kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
Ballard told Lexington police that he saw Taylor beat Johnson to death on Dec. 20, 2013, the day Johnson disappeared.
A condition of Ballard’s plea agreement is that he must testify at Taylor’s trial. Taylor and Ballard are not eligible for the death penalty, according to a March ruling.
The trial is expected to take one to two weeks.
Lee and Judy Johnson of Bowling Green, Alex’s parents, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against several officials alleging that police and call-takers mishandled the case after Johnson was reported missing.
That civil case has been delayed until the criminal trial against Taylor ends.