DA reverses course on death penalty in movie murders
The death penalty is no longer an option in a case alleging that a man killed another man and injured a woman when he opened fire in a movie theatre.
Anu-Malik Johnson, 23, faces first degree murder and other charges following the death of Andre White Jr., 22, of Carlisle, at the Regal Cinemas theater in the West Manchester Town Center shopping complex in December 2019.
The other victim, a woman who was not affiliated with either of the men, was shot twice during the incident and injured, including by a bullet that grazed her cheek, police said.
Nearly four months later, after Johnson’s arrest, the York County prosecutor’s office in March 2020, filed his intention to seek the death penalty for Johnson, if found guilty.
The process meant that if a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, prosecutors would then ask the jurors to decide whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison. A life sentence is automatic for defendants convicted of first-degree murder under Pennsylvania law.
A judge of the Court of Common Pleas confirmed the prosecution’s plan later this year.
Judge Craig Trebilcock dismissed challenges from Johnson’s lawyers, including their assertion that the evidence did not support claims that the shooting created a risk of death for anyone other than White.
On Tuesday, about two years after Trebilcock’s decision, the prosecutor’s office requested the withdrawal of the intention to seek the death penalty.
The motion cites a review of a mitigating report submitted by Johnson’s defense attorneys, as well as “relevant case law and jury instructions.”
Judge Maria Musti Cook granted the request.
Jonathan White, Johnson’s attorney, said he “hopes and believes” prosecutors will withdraw the death penalty plan.
“I think they made the right decision,” he said.
Kyle King, spokesman for the district attorney’s office, declined to make a statement.
“We don’t comment on outstanding issues,” he said.
White and his co-lawyer, Korey Leslie, had brought in a mitigation specialist to speak to Johnson earlier this year as part of defense preparation, court records show.
White declined to speak to the York Dispatch about the contents of his mitigation report at this time.
Johnson is charged with first and third degree murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault, unlawful possession of a firearm and three counts of reckless endangerment.
He and another man, Jalen Bellaflores, entered Regal’s Theater 6 where the movie “Queen and Slim” was being screened on the night of Dec. 2, 2019, police said. They would be two of the eight people to take place in the room for this film. Andre White Jr. and a woman with him entered next.
A witness told police White briefly exchanged words with Johnson as he and the woman walked to their seats in the back row, court documents show.
Another witness in the theater alleged that Johnson and Bellaflores got up and moved back one row to two new seats, police said. Bellaflores reportedly got up a few moments later and headed for the exit doors.
Seconds later, witnesses said Johnson stood up, walked to the back row and opened fire on White.
He allegedly kept shooting as he ran for the exit to flee with Bellaflores.
Two bullets hit the woman who was seated in a row in front of White, one injuring her shoulder and the other grazing her cheek, police said.
White was shot five times.
Nine spent shell casings were recovered from the theater as part of the investigation, police said.
West Manchester investigators said footage from the security camera video matched descriptions of Johnson’s witnesses. He was identified by York City Police officers and detectives who saw the footage, as shown in the criminal complaint in the case.
Johnson’s trial date has yet to be set.
White, the attorney, thought a date request could be filed in about a week, and he thought the case could go to a jury around March 2023.
Bellaflores, meanwhile, has also been charged in the case, facing charges of obstructing Johnson’s arrest, obstructing law enforcement, conspiracy to obstructing law enforcement and tampering with evidence.
He is then due in court in January 2023, according to court records.
– Contact Aimee Ambrose at [email protected] or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.