Man on trial for assaulting correctional officer, argues it was self-defense

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to show that the case was scheduled for trial but has never formally gone to a jury trial before.

A defendant is arguing self-defense in a case in which he is accused of assaulting a Spring Creek Correctional Complex correctional officer while he was a inmate there.

The ongoing assault trial in Kenai questions whether Spring Creek Correctional Facility officers were out of line in using force to restrain the defendant, Johnny Johnson. The state prosecution argues the restraints were justified based on his behavior.

The case, which dates back to January 2010, has gone through a number of stops and starts since it was first filed in 2011 but finally reached trial in Kenai District Court starting Monday. The state has charged Johnny Johnson with assault in the fourth degree for attacking a correctional officer, who sustained non-life-threatening injuries in the attack.

Assault in the fourth degree is a relatively minor charge, carrying only a class A misdemeanor classification. However, the case has dragged on for nearly eight years, been scheduled for trial before and was dismissed in 2014. The dismissal was reversed in February 2017 by the Court of Appeals, according to online court records.

The correctional officers had been in the process of opening a cell door to check on Johnson’s blood circulation while he was in a restraint chair — a chair with multiple arm, leg, waist and chest straps used to stop inmates from hurting themselves or others. Unbeknownst to the correctional officers, Johnson had managed to free himself from the restraints and attacked one of the guards as soon as the cell door was open, landing blows before the other officers got him under control again. The entire incident was filmed, as per Spring Creek Correctional Complex’s policy on the use of the restraint chair.

The assistant district attorney in Kenai, Sam Scott, said in his opening statement during the jury trial Tuesday that Johnson had freed himself and stayed still, hiding the fact that he’d freed himself beneath the blanket covering him and waited for the officers to return in order to attack them as retribution.

“He says it over and over and over again (in statements before trial) — he was going to punish them,” Scott said. “… He was going to make them pay a price, and moreover, he did not care which one of them it was.”

Johnson’s attorney, public defender Frank Singh, argued that the correctional officers had inappropriately left Johnson in the chair for hours on end without performing enough exercises to stretch his limbs out, and that he freed himself and attacked them because he believed they were going to leave him in the restraints longer. By the time he attacked the officer, he had already been in the restraints for more than two hours, which Singh said goes beyond the Alaska Department of Corrections’ policy on reasonable use of force to gain compliance.

“No one’s disputing that (the assault) happened,” Singh told the jury in his opening statement. “But what you’re going to hear is the reason why.”

Tuesday’s trial proceedings saw four witnesses called, including two correctional officers who witnessed the assault, the Alaska State Trooper who investigated the assault and another correctional officer who later transported the injured officer to the hospital. Both Scott and Singh played sections of the video tape of the incident, showing Johnson in the chair and of the correctional officers going to open the door of the cell he was in, which was a small mesh cage cell called a program cell, measuring about 3 feet by 4 feet.

Johnson was not present at the trial but participated telephonically. The victim of the assault was not present nor participating Tuesday.

The trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday morning.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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