By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes
SALEM – Early on, Victor David Smith was a prime suspect in the July 1, 2004 murder of Keizer’s Phillip Lynn Johnson.
More than 10 years and two trials later, a Marion County Circuit Court jury on Tuesday declared Smith guilty of murder with a firearm. Sentencing was expected to take place Thursday after press time, but the charge carries a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years.
The verdict was met with relief from Johnson’s family members (see related story, pg. 11) who watched every minute of the trial, just as they did back in June for the first trial.
In June, the jury was sent out to deliberations on a Friday. The following Wednesday, judge Tom Hart declared a mistrial due to a hung jury.
There was no repeat this time. Jury selection took place Sept. 10, with the trial itself starting the following day. Closing arguments were given Tuesday morning. The jury was out for less than four hours before returning its verdict late in the afternoon.
Prosecutors Paige Clarkson and David Wilson tried a case in which no murder weapon was ever found and in which no witnesses could positively identify the shooter. In addition, this month’s trial happened 10 years after the shooting.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was needing to rely on testimony from several people who aren’t exactly model citizens. Chief among those was Steven Chrisco, who is currently in prison and has been in trouble with the law for the past 15 years.
It was Chrisco and then-girlfriend Sara Fandrei, the first two witnesses for the prosecution, who helped turn the case around. Both initially told detectives with the Keizer Police Department they were at the Salem apartment they shared on the night of the murder.
In separate interviews days apart in April 2009, however, both told a different story: they took Smith to Johnson’s apartment complex the night of the murder. Both testified in court Smith got out of Fandrei’s car and jumped the fence. Minutes later, they heard gunshots and Smith hopped back over the fence, getting back into Fandrei’s car.
“You can’t mistake a gunshot,” said Fandrei, who estimated she heard five shots. “It sounds like nothing else.”
Fandrei couldn’t recall any discussion in the car after Smith got back in.
“I was so focused on not dying,” she said. “I just did what I was told to do. Other than being threatened if I said anything and my life would be taken or my family’s life would be taken, nothing was said.”
Fandrei said she wanted to tell the police the truth “every day, all the time” but couldn’t for fear of her safety. When police talked to her again nearly five years later, she noted things had changed.
“I didn’t feel like I was in danger anymore,” she said. “I didn’t feel I would be taken. I felt confident the investigators would protect me.”
Chrisco, who acknowledged he was being a snitch for ratting out Smith, testified he gave Smith his .357 revolver shortly before the shooting, even though Smith didn’t have the $250 to pay him.
“He said he’d get me the money,” said Chrisco, who later said he figured Smith would “pick up the money or maybe rob someone” that night.
Both Clarkson and defense attorney Olcott Thompson brought up Chrisco’s past.
“The state doesn’t get to pick witnesses,” Clarkson said during closing arguments. “If we could, we wouldn’t choose Steven Chrisco. If you want to kill somebody, you don’t call your pastor. You call Steven Chrisco for his gun. You call someone with a history of violent behavior. But despite the consequences, he told you what happened on July 1, 2004.”
As he did in June, Thompson suggested others could have been the shooter, including Mexican drug dealers, a gang member who got into a fight with Johnson the week before and Chrisco himself.
“The state says Mr. Chrisco lied for five years,” Thompson said in closing arguments. “He’s still lying. People are pointing the finger at (him). What’s the best way to get the finger pointed to someone else? Change who the shooter is. That leaves you with two options: either Mr. Chrisco hopped the fence and did (the shooting), or Steven Chrisco and Sara Fandrei picked up someone else who did it.”
Thompson, who called Chrisco “a lying snitch,” pointed out Chrisco had accused Smith of shooting him in the leg five years earlier and asked why Chrisco would thus give Smith a loaded revolver.
Prosecutors detailed a timeline of phone calls from the night of the murder, including one from Smith to Johnson that night. They also played calls between Imani Williams – Smith’s live-in girlfriend who was still having an affair with Johnson – and her brother Michael Monk, as well as a follow-up call between Monk and Smith.
During the latter call, Smith could be heard telling Monk of his issues with Johnson. Later in the call, Monk asked, “So it’s all downhill? Ain’t no stopping it?” to which Smith replies affirmatively.
As they did in June, prosecutors emphasized several letters Smith sent to Williams while behind bars for previous crimes.
“(Smith) asked her repeatedly to end her relationship with the victim,” Wilson said. “She wouldn’t end it. The defendant called Mr. Johnson and asked him to stop; he wouldn’t, either. There was only one way for it to end: the defendant would have to put an end to it. That happened on July 1, 2004.”
Both the opening and closing arguments for the prosecution started with Smith’s “prophecy” of what would happen as a result of his love for Williams.
One of the 15 witnesses brought in by the prosecution was Roy Sjolander, who was roomed with Smith for two weeks earlier this year in prison. Sjolander testified Smith told him about shooting Johnson.
“He said he got out, went over the wall and confronted Mr. Johnson,” Sjolander said. “He said he was by himself going over the wall. He said there were three shots.”
Clarkson pointed to Sjolander’s testimony during her closing arguments.
“He told you it was over a girl,” Clarkson said. “The details are consistent. He talks about (Chrisco’s) girlfriend driving, about going over a wall and confronting the victim. Those details are fitting with everything else we know…This defendant felt comfortable enough to tell his story. He never felt in a million years (Sjolander) would come in and testify.”
Johnson’s friend Daron Wade testified he was leaving the Cascadia Village Apartments residence Johnson shared with his live-in girlfriend when he saw the shooting. Wade said he didn’t see the shooter, but ran to Johnson’s apartment to tell the girlfriend to call 9-1-1. Wade, who had run-ins with the law, then left the scene but talked to authorities later.
Johnson’s girlfriend, who gave birth to the couple’s daughter a few months later, delivered some of the most emotion on the stand.
“No one should experience the pain,” she said. “Knowing I was carrying his child and that he wouldn’t be able to see her, it was devastating.”
The girlfriend called it the hardest day of her life.
“I want justice served,” she said. “I want my daughter to know the coward who did this will rot in jail. She’s 9 and will never meet her dad. Why? Because of someone’s stupid choice.”
Thompson said in his closing statements not all angles were thoroughly looked at.
“The state is saying, ‘Just trust us. We looked at everything. We followed the leads. We talked to a lot of people, wrote a lot of reports,’” Thompson said. “That’s not how it works.”
In her rebuttal, Clarkson countered that all information was indeed vetted. She ended by replaying the conversation between Monk and Smith on the night of the murder.
“Today, 10 years later, it’s all downhill from here for this defendant,” Clarkson said. “Ain’t no stopping it. The verdict you find must be guilty.”
Thompson said afterwards he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.
“The state is supposed to win,” he said. “That’s how the system is set up. It’s not surprising.”
Thompson credited the prosecution for some changes made since June.
“The state plugged some holes they had,” Thompson said. “They brought in Roy Sjolander. He wasn’t there the first time.”
Thompson expects action to be taken later.
“I’m positive it is going to be appealed,” he said. “I hope it will be looked at seriously, but it will not be me. It’s good to have fresh eyes.”