A Randallstown man convicted of decapitating his year-old son in 1983 while in a drug-induced haze won a new trial yesterday when the Court of Special Appeals ruled that he is entitled to plead insanity.
Stephen C. Johnson, now 47, was sentenced to life with all but 50 years suspended for killing his son Christmas Day in their home.
Paramedics called to Johnson's home by his wife found him standing in his driveway with the baby's limp body in his hands.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge Cullen Hormes convicted Johnson of first-degree murder in 1984 after Johnson's wife, Carla Johnson, testified that he frequently took PCP. She also testified that on the night of the death, Johnson told her that their son "was Jesus Christ reborn through us and that he had to die for everybody's sins."
Johnson's lawyer, Nathan Stern, filed an insanity plea a month after Johnson was charged. But he withdrew the plea a few weeks later in hopes of getting a second-degree murder conviction after consulting with the psychiatrist who examined Johnson, according to court records.
The Court of Special Appeals ruled yesterday that Stern should not have withdrawn the insanity plea based on conversations with a psychiatrist who had a "confused opinion of the insanity law."
The court also ruled that Stern should have talked with Johnson before withdrawing the plea.
"To abandon an important avenue of defense, without discussing it with the client, and based upon a doctor's misconception of the law, amounted to error," Judge Andrew L. Sonner wrote in a 31-page decision.
Stern did not return phone calls yesterday.
Deputy State's Attorney Sue A. Schenning said that she will discuss the ruling with Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s office before deciding on whether to file an appeal with the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.
"It was just a horrific crime," Schenning said.
Janice Harvey, who began representing Johnson for free in 1995, said that she plans to have him evaluated by therapists at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center as a first step toward a new trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
If Perkins therapists determine that Johnson was sane and criminally responsible for the killing, she will request a jury trial to contest that finding, she said. "It would be a difficult burden for both sides in this case," said Harvey.
She said that after Johnson was convicted, he spent 14 years in therapy at Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security facility in Jessup that focuses on rehabilitation.
He was transferred to other prison facilities in 1999 after completing all Patuxent treatment programs, she said. He is being held at the Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland.