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Jury finds Superior murder suspect not guilty

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News Duluth, 55802
Duluth News Tribune
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Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

Tiawain Johnson sat emotionless for the majority of his five-day murder trial.

Late Friday evening, he had an outburst of excitement. Johnson cracked a smile and threw his arms around his defense attorney. Moments later, District Attorney Dan Blank walked over, shook his hand and said, “Congratulations.”

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Johnson, 22, was acquitted of first-degree intentional homicide by a Douglas County jury. If convicted, he would have faced a mandatory life sentence in prison.

The verdict came about 9 p.m. after two hours of emotional closing arguments and 2½ hours of jury deliberation, capping off a week of testimony.

Outside the courtroom, Johnson held his son on his shoulders and let his attorney, Aaron Nelson, speak on his behalf.

“Relief is the biggest emotion right now,” Nelson said. “I’m glad the jury had the courage to make this difficult decision. Justice was done.”

Authorities contended that Johnson shot Toriano “Snap” Cooper twice outside a home at 1901 N. 12th St. in Superior on the morning of Jan. 15, 2012, in retaliation for a robbery. Six witnesses, all of whom were convicted felons or facing felony charges, testified that they heard Johnson confess to the killing.

Blank said he was “absolutely confident” that Johnson was the perpetrator, but said he has faith in the jury trial system.

“It was a horrible, tragic case for Snapper, and I feel for his family,” Blank said. “But the community gets a chance to speak its mind.”

A jury of eight women and four men decided the case.

Blank contended in closing arguments Johnson was an impulsive 20-year-old with a Chicago sense of street justice when he gunned down Cooper in retaliation for a robbery of some cash and drugs.

“That’s who confessed,” Blank told jurors. “That’s who had the motive. That’s who knew the action. That’s who had the gun. That’s who went around town looking for Snapper.”

Blank told the jurors during his hourlong statement that Johnson was embarrassed by the robbery, which occurred in front of his girlfriend and her young children. In revenge, he sought out Cooper. After nearly two weeks, Blank said, he found Cooper working on a car and shot him twice.

“He did it intentionally,” Blank said. “It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t self-defense. It was an intentional act. Gun. Person. Shot. Dead.”

Blank told jurors that it was hard to ignore the six witnesses who testified that Johnson confessed to the murder. The alleged confessions help piece the case together, the district attorney said.

“He couldn’t keep his mouth shut,” Blank said. “It was his first murder and he was going to tell people about it.”

Nelson suggested in his closing argument that Michael Hawkins was Cooper’s real killer. He contended that Hawkins and his brother, Jerard Hampton, were upset about the robbery at Johnson’s because they were involved in the drug scheme with him. That amounted to lost money and drug sales for all three.

Hawkins testified that he was with Kelly Christiansen the night before and morning of the homicide. But Christiansen took the stand Friday, testifying that he was not with her, and she did not know his whereabouts.

The uncertainty about Hawkins’ whereabouts constitutes reasonable doubt — enough to acquit Johnson — the attorney argued.

“There has been no evidence presented to prove that it wasn’t Hawkins,” Nelson said. “The only thing that says it wasn’t Hawkins is Hawkins himself.”

Nelson also attacked the credibility of the prosecution witnesses who claimed they overheard Johnson confess to the murder. He said plea agreements and sentencing considerations were enough to persuade witnesses to perjure themselves.

“People in jail will lie to get out of jail,” Nelson argued. “They’re not like you and me.”

At the end of his argument, Nelson asked jurors to “protect” Johnson from the charge against him. “Please, do justice,” he pleaded.

Blank gave a four-minute rebuttal.

“You have the evidence that pieces this case together,” he argued. “The evidence that you have is that the motive and the shooter was Tiawain Johnson.”

Earlier in the day, Nelson sought dismissal of the case, citing three examples of evidence not being turned over to him in the discovery process.

On Monday, a witness testified that he was shown a photo lineup of possible suspects, which did not include Johnson. He identified another man. Blank said police could not find the lineup.

On Thursday, Judge Kelly Thimm found that the district attorney’s office violated state and federal laws by misinforming Nelson about special considerations offered to witness Brad Poverud. Poverud, a prison inmate, had charges and bail reduced in exchange for information.

In the end, Nelson said, justice prevailed.

“There’s no good result in a case in which somebody has died,” he said. “I hope the Cooper family can get the real shooter at some point, but I’m happy to know that Mr. Johnson has been found not guilty.”

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Tom Olsen
(218) 723-5333
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