We’ve written about wrongful murder convictions in the past. These misguided convictions sometimes force innocent “offenders” to pay the ultimate penalty for crimes which were never even committed, because capital punishment — while rare — is still used in Utah today. In other cases still, alleged offenders are simply handed excessive sentences which can extend years beyond what may have been legally appropriate. However, rulings aren’t always permanent. This month, the initial conviction of alleged Salt Lake City murderer Michael Waddell Johnson was overturned by the Utah Court of Appeals due to a jury error.
Missing Documents Trigger Appeal in SLC Murder Case
In January of 1998, Cathy Cobb’s son was the first to find his mother’s lifeless body in her Salt Lake City apartment. After authorities were alerted to the grisly discovery, ex-husband Michael Waddell Johnson was interviewed, but ultimately dismissed as a subject. Half a year passed with no conclusion in sight, and the case was eventually closed.
But the story wasn’t over. Years later, then-Salt Lake City Mayor Ross “Rocky” Anderson ordered the case to be reopened. This turn of events proved disastrous for Johnson, who was subsequently charged with two separate counts of murder. One charge cited “depraved indifference,” while the other was based on intent.
To trace Johnson’s two charges back to the actual Utah murder statutes, 76-5-203 states, “Criminal homicide constitutes murder if… acting under circumstances evidencing a depraved indifference to human life, the actor knowingly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another and thereby causes the death of another.” Criminal homicide can also be classified as murder if “the actor intentionally or knowingly causes the death of another.” Both scenarios can lead to a first degree felony murder charge, which can in turn lead to life imprisonment.
Dissatisfied, Johnson’s defense attorneys requested consideration for the lesser charge of homicide by assault. As defined by 76-5-209, it is homicide by assault when “under circumstances not amounting to aggravated murder, murder, or manslaughter, a person causes the death of another while intentionally or knowingly attempting, with unlawful force or violence, to do bodily injury to another.” As a third degree felony, this charge can lead to a maximum sentence of five years in prison: considerably less than life.
Third District Judge Judith Atherton, who presided over the case, granted the defense team’s request — but the jury never considered the option of homicide by assault. Instead, Johnson was convicted of acting with intent, and, in accordance with 76-5-203, received a sentence of five years to life.
Understandably, Johnson and his attorneys then took steps to appeal the decision, which failed to encompass all possible sentencing options. Oddly, Judge Atherton insists she sent the appropriate materials to the jury, yet no documentation related to the lesser charge could be found in the records.
Evidence Suggests Cobb Wasn’t Murdered, But Fell Victim to an Overdose
Complicating the case further is a glaring divergence of opinion regarding the cause of Cobb’s death. One medical examiner determined Cobb died as a result of being strangled, but another examiner posited a wildly different theory: that Cobb had passed away following an alcohol and drug overdose.
According to the trial record, Cobb’s BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) at the time of her death measured an astonishingly high 0.33, whereas a BAC of only 0.08 is sufficient to trigger Salt Lake City DUI charges. For most people, a BAC of .30 is high enough that they are likely to pass out and at the .35 level, coma is possible. A .40 BAC will cause coma and possible death due to respiratory arrest.
The trial record also indicates that Cobb’s system contained a “significant amount of cocaine.” Even seemingly benign and mundane drugs like Tylenol can wreak terrible havoc on the human body when combined with other substances — and a cocktail of alcohol and cocaine could have easily led to death. When mixed together, cocaine and alcohol create a new chemical substance called cocaethylene. The record states cocaethylene “is [thought] to be more toxic to the heart than the cocaine itself,” and according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “cocaethylene may play a role in the morbidity and mortality associated with concurrent cocaine/alcohol abuse.”
Johnson’s Conviction Ultimately Reversed in 2-1 Decision From Utah Court of Appeals
In closing, the trial record makes the following comments: “The evidence before us indicates that the verdict form is missing from the official record, as well as from the files retained by the State’s and Johnson’s trial attorneys and any extra-record files maintained by the court, such as personal files of the trial judge and court staff.”
The record also describes the jury instruction as being “clearly defective,” and ends with the statement, “We reverse Johnson’s conviction and remand the case to the trial court.”
The reversal was the result of a 2-1 decision, with Senior Judge Russell Bench dissenting against Judges Stephen Roth and James Z. Davis.
It’s interesting to note that back in 2010, when Waddell was convicted, one prosecuting attorney stated firmly, “The answer is Michael Johnson killed Cathy Cobb.”
While Johnson’s ordeal may not be entirely settled, this case is a shining example of how important fighting criminal charges can really be — especially if you’re facing allegations of committing a felony with years or even a lifetime of incarceration as a penalty. If you’ve been charged with murder, aggravated murder, assault, or other crimes, call the law offices of Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson right away at (801) 758-2287, or contact us online to schedule your free and private legal consultation.