Originally created 05/04/02

State trooper's killer dies after appeals fail



COLUMBIA - Richard Charles Johnson was put to death Friday evening for killing a state trooper in 1985, despite a confession from one of Mr. Johnson's former co-defendants.

Mr. Johnson's appeal to the state Supreme Court was rejected Monday, and Gov. Jim Hodges denied a request for clemency Thursday. On Friday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down three appeals from Mr. Johnson's lawyers.

Mr. Johnson died by lethal injection at 6:18 p.m. Friday, a prison official said.

Mr. Johnson, 39, was sentenced to die for the shooting death of Trooper Bruce Smalls, who was killed during a traffic stop along Interstate 95 in Jasper County.

A hitchhiker Mr. Johnson had picked up along the highway, Connie Sue Hess, originally testified that Mr. Johnson killed the officer. But years later, while being treated at a mental facility in Nebraska, Ms. Hess confessed to killing Trooper Smalls.

A jury never heard the admission, and that was the crux of most of Mr. Johnson's appeals and the rallying cry of those who lobbied for his life to be spared.

Defense attorneys stopped Mr. Johnson's October 1999 execution a day before it was scheduled when they produced Ms. Hess' sworn statement saying she killed Trooper Smalls.

The state Supreme Court assigned a judge to decide whether Ms. Hess' confession was credible. He ruled that Ms. Hess had told so many different stories about what happened that day that her testimony could not be believed. The justices ruled 3-2 in June 2000 to allow Mr. Johnson's execution to continue.

"It is hard to explain how frustrating it is to be here year after year when you have no memory of what happened and not to be able to defend yourself," Mr. Johnson said in his final statement, read by his lawyer John Blume. "It is also hard to understand a system that would allow two people charged with a crime to go free and take another man's life."