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How a house fire burned up a man's murder conviction 
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How a house fire burned up a man's murder conviction 

How a house fire burned up a man's murder conviction 
Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How a house fire burned up a man's murder conviction 

A man serving life for stabbing his girlfriend 36 times until she died just had his conviction tossed out by Georgia's Supreme Court.

Recordings and notes from Craig Johnson’s six-day trial were destroyed in a 2011 fire at the home of the court reporter. 

The court reporter had managed to transcribe many pages of the pretrial hearings, but not of the 2009 trial itself. Johnson's attempt to get a new trial, saying the lack of transcript denied him his constitutional right to appeal his malice murder conviction, was initially rejected by a lower court.

WSB senior legal analyst Ron Carlson explains, “Both the U.S. Supreme Court and Georgia statutes guarantee the defendant a full transcript to work from.

“In this case, the absence of that results in a new trial for a man who inflicted serious wounds on his victim.”

Carlson adds, “An excuse that’s sometimes used is, ‘The dog ate my homework.’ 

“In this case, the homework was destroyed not by a dog, but by a fire. And the destruction of the raw material here provided the reason that Craig Johnson gets a new trial.”

The Supreme Court dismissed a 14-page, double-spaced document that prosecutors purported was a complete recreation of what happened during the trial. “The state made a good college try here; tried to prepare a summary of what went on in the trial, but it was too little and too late,” Carlson says.

"We cannot hold that an appellant is not entitled to a complete trial transcript simply because it appears from the record that exists that he is clearly guilty," Justice David Nahmias wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion. "Because Johnson has been deprived of the ability to appeal his convictions, the trial court should have granted his motion for a new trial."

Lee County Chief Assistant District Attorney Lewis Lamb, who handled the appeal for the state, says he will retry the case.

“The DA apparently feels confident that he can recreate enough of the evidence to convict Johnson again,” Carlson says.

So why does this not count as double jeopardy for Craig Johnson? According to Carlson, “The double jeopardy clause does not prevent a second trial where there’s been a reversal on appeal.

“If a conviction is voided on appeal by an appellate court, as occurred here, the state is entitled to subject the defendant to a retrial.”

No word on a new trial date.

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