Originally created 11/15/00

Johnson gets life, no parole

WAYNESBORO - Garry D. Johnson can never woo and murder another woman.

On Tuesday, a Burke County Superior Court juryvoted unanimously to send Mr. Johnson, 37, to prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole for the Dec. 27, 1997, slaying of Irene Shields.

"It was the worse thing I've ever seen," Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey said of what he saw on a Sunday morning after being called away from church services.

Ms. Shields, 31, an Army veteran and mother of three who worked three jobs to support her family, lay in woods on the side of the road, her body broken and mangled after being run over repeatedly with a Ford Explorer.

Life in prison wasn't enough, the sheriff and Ms. Shields' family said.

"My whole family is distraught," brother Howard Shields said Tuesday. "The way he murdered Irene was so horrible he should not be allowed to breathe another breath. He should be put to death."

But the jury of eight women and four men chose life without parole over the other options of death or life with possibility of parole.

"Death is not your only option," defense attorney Luther McDaniel told the jury in his closing argument Tuesday. "You don't have to correct the problem by becoming part of the problem. If we kill Mr. Johnson, what is that going to do to ease the pain of the family of Ms. Shields?"

District Attorney Danny Craig asked the jury to impose a punishment that reflected what Mr. Johnson had done to Ms. Shields. Look at what he did, Mr. Craig told the jury as he held up a picture of a smiling Ms. Shields and an autopsy picture of her brutalized face.

"What must have gone through her mind as she lay on that road, bound and gagged, and she saw those headlights?" Mr. Craig asked.

Ms. Shields served her country, and she was a model citizen, a poet, a mother, and a witty, loving and dependable human, Mr. Craig argued. "She deserved to be treated like a lady. Instead, she was tortured."

"You can bring back a just verdict without killing Garry Johnson," defense attorney Jack E. Boone Jr. argued to the jury in reply.

"There's no reason to inflict any more pain. How do you stop the killing? ... Simply be better than the defendant that you found to be a killer."

It wasn't just that he laid her bound and gagged on the road and repeatedly ran over her, Sheriff Coursey said. Six hours passed from the time he trapped her in the Hephzibah home the two once shared and drove her to the killing spot on Boll Weevil Road in Burke County. He spent hours tying intricate bindings around her wrists and ankles, the sheriff said.

"Can you imagine what she went through?" he asked.

There were some breaks in the case afterward, Sheriff Coursey said.

A Burke County man happened on Ms. Shields' billfold along Georgia Highway 80 the morning after her killing and called a telephone number he found on a receipt. The number belonged to Rhonda Bailey, Ms. Shields' best friend, who was frantically trying to find Ms. Shields, who had disappeared after leaving for work Dec. 27, 1997.

Another Burke County man out for a walk the morning of Dec. 28 noticed some deep ruts toward the edge of Boll Weevil Road in the soft dirt area most drivers avoid. Then he noticed drag marks, such as someone might have made when pulling a deer across the road. Walking to the edge of the road, he realized after a minute that what he was looking at was a body.

"If it had rained that night," Sheriff Coursey said, shaking his head, "it might have washed away those boot prints," referring to the Timberland boot prints revealing a rock embedded in the tread of one boot. Authorities matched the print to the Timberland boots Mr. Johnson was wearing when he was arrested Dec. 28.

"Of course, Irene helped too, by making the calls that she did," the sheriff said. In the weeks before her murder, Ms. Shields told friends and family and others that Mr. Johnson had threatened to kill her and her children. Her last days were spent hiding from him at Ms. Bailey's home.

Ms. Shields' brother said Tuesday the family is grateful to the law enforcement officers who made the case against Mr. Johnson - sheriff's departments in Burke and Richmond counties and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation - and to the prosecutors who presented the case, Mr. Craig and Assistant District Attorney Ashley Wright.

It was an amazing cooperative effort between three law enforcement groups and prosecutors to arrest and convict Mr. Johnson, the sheriff said.

Nearly a decade ago, law enforcement wasn't successful. Mr. Johnson was acquitted of murder charges in Richmond County Superior Court in connection with the Dec. 3, 1990, slaying of Margaree Bridges.

Mr. Johnson's name also surfaced in the investigation of another Richmond County woman he had dated, Mr. Craig said. Michelle D. Walker's body was found April 29, 1996, off River Watch Parkway. No arrest has been made.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.


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