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Psychologist: Kemar Johnston suffers from brain damage

Feb. 16, 2010
Kemar Johnston, 23, reacts Tuesday to the emotional testimony of his stepmother, Denise Johnston / Valerie Roche/


Watch today's proceedings live

5:19 P.M. UPDATE

The penalty phase of the trial has recessed for the day after Eisenstein finished testifying.

Under questioning by by prosecutor Lee, Eisenstein said that the fact he is being paid $200 an hour did not influence his findings regarding Johnston's brain damage and mental capabilities.

Eisenstein also said that the fact he was evaluating Johnston for the defense did not influence his findings.

The trial is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.

2:58 p.m. update

The trial is in a brief recess.

Before the break, Eisenstein testified that Johnston suffers from frontal lobe brain damage, probably caused when he was knocked unconscious in a school playground accident in Jamaica when he was 6 years old and also from injesting fruit and drinking and bathing in water tainted by herbicides used to kill marijuana crops there.

Frontal lobe brain damage impairs a person's ability to make rational decisions and diminishes one's ability to learn, Eisenstein said.

He said tests given to Johnston show that although he is in his 20s, he has the educational level of a 10 to 12-year-old.

1:32 p.m. update

The penalty phase of the trial has resumed. The jury is back in the courtroom and Eisenstein is continuing his testimony.

Lee Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese told the jury they may get the case Thursday afternoon, "although that's a stretch."

Reese said the jury will most likely begin deliberations regarding Johnston's recommended sentence on Friday.

12:10 p.m. update

The hearing is in recess until 1:15 p.m.

Hyman Eisenstein, a clinical psychologist is in the middle of testifying for the defense. Eisenstein said that after interviewing and testing Johnston, he determined that Johntson suffers from organic brain damage which caused behavioral and learning problems.

11:10 a.m. update

Johnston may not have acted as he did the night the Sosas were slain if he hadn't been with 50 of his peers at his birthday party, James Alan Fox, a criminologist, testified for the defense.

(Page 2 of 3)

"Had the defendant not been on his own that night, events would have been very, very different," said Fox, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

The defense is trying to show that Johnston did not plan an orchestrate the murders, which is a factor in considering the death penalty.

Fox testified that because of peer pressure, teens and young adults act and do things in a group that they would not normally do individually, even if it involves murder, without considering the long term consequences.

Fox said the group or mob mentality is even more prevelant among teens and young adults of lower intelligence and who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Relatives have testified that Johnston has always been slow and did poorly in school.

However, if Johnston were acting as the group leader that night, this could have motivated others to participate in the crimes, Fox said in answering a question posed by prosecutor Bob Lee.

The hearing is in a brief recess and testimony from other witnesses will resume shortly.

From this morning's editions of The News-Press

Kemar Johnston is either a calculating murderer or a victim of brain damage who grew up in squalor.

A jury by the end of the week must decide whom Johnston really is.

The 23-year-old was convicted last month of two counts of first-degree murder and other charges in the killings of Alexis Sosa, 18, and his nephew Jeffrey Sosa, 14.

The jurors who convicted Johnston began hearing attorney arguments and witness testimony Tuesday on whether they should recommend a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty. Lee Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese will make the final decision, although he must give great consideration the jury's recommendation. Attorneys say the case should go to the jury Thursday or Friday.

Prosecutors portray Johnston as a pitiless killer, who planned and

carried out the murders at his birthday party in Cape Coral in October 2006 in a cruel, cold and premeditated manner. They say he deserves death by lethal injection.

(Page 3 of 3)

"At the close of the case, I'll ask you to hold the defendant responsible for that night when his celebration of life became a celebration of death," Assistant State Attorney Bob Lee told the 12-member jury.

Defense attorneys paint a different picture of a man who deserves to live.

Johnston spent his young life in poverty in his native Jamaica, where he suffered from brain damage caused by a school playground accident and from herbicides used to kill marijuana crops.

The night of the killings, he was high on drugs and alcohol, which combined with his limited intelligence, rendered Johnston incapable of methodically planning the Sosas' killings, defense attorney David Brener said.

"I will implore you to spare Kemar Johnston's life. This young man is worth saving and deserves your mercy and compassion," Brener said.

To bolster the prosecution's case, Lee called on Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf, the deputy chief medical examiner who performed autopsies on the Sosas.

Pfalzgraf said both victims would have been conscious for hours after being shot and would have been in pain from those wounds. He also said that both would have suffered more pain after their skin was carved with knives.

Johnston's second cousin, Julett Salmon, told jurors that Johnston and two siblings had little food and wore shabby clothes as children.

"They were dirty and ragged," Salmon said. She said Johnston used to drink water from a stream near where planes sprayed marijuana crops with herbicides.

Salmon said her cousin was also knocked unconscious when he fell off a wall at his school's playground.

Salmon said Johnston's father, Hugh Johnston, who divorced Johnston's mother, brought his children to Lehigh Acres when his son was 9.

Johnston was held back and placed in second grade instead of fourth grade because "he didn't know that one plus one is two. He didn't know his ABCs," said his stepmother, Denise Johnston.

"When he came to me, he couldn't even write his name," said his second-grade teacher, Paula Young.

As Johnston grew older, his learning didn't seem to improve.

"He was slow academically," said Patrick Magee, Johnston's 10th grade world history teacher.

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