Jury to Mull Woman's Fate: Death or Life in Prison

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2005, file photo Angela Johnson is lead to a hearing at the Federal Courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Johnson was convicted in 2005 in the drug-related slayings of three adults and two children in 1993 near Mason City. A federal judge, citing errors by her attorney's, tossed out her death sentences cut upheld her convictions on Thursday, March 22, 2012. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jim Slosiarek, File)

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By Ellen Kurt

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Jurors hearing the upcoming death penalty retrial of former Iowa drug dealer Angela Johnson will decide whether she deserves to die for her role in five murders instead of spending the rest of her life in prison.

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett said Wednesday he will instruct jurors that he will impose a sentence of life in prison without parole for Johnson if even one of them does not believe she should be executed. Jurors will not be allowed to consider the possibility of a lesser sentence, he ruled.

The ruling is a victory for Johnson's defense, which argued that jurors could be persuaded to support the death penalty if they believed Johnson could eventually be released.

Johnson, who turns 49 on Thursday, is facing a June 3 retrial in federal court in Sioux City to determine the sentence she should receive for her role in the 1993 execution-style slayings of three adults and two children in northern Iowa. She had been the first woman sent to federal death row in decades after a jury gave her four death sentences following a 2005 trial.

But Bennett overturned the sentences last year after finding that Johnson's defense was inadequate because her lawyers failed to present evidence about her mental state that could've convinced jurors to spare her life.

Rather than allow Bennett to convert her sentence to life in prison, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to retry the penalty phase of the case and again seek to convince jurors that the appropriate penalty for Johnson's actions is death.

Prosecutors say Johnson and her then-boyfriend, methamphetamine kingpin Dustin Honken, killed two former dealers who were cooperating with a federal investigation into his multistate drug business, one of the dealer's girlfriends and her two kids.

Honken and Johnson forced one of the dealers to make a videotaped statement exonerating Honken days before he was to plead guilty to drug charges, then took him, his girlfriend and the children to a field where they were shot in the back of the head. Months later, Johnson lured a second dealer, one of her former boyfriends, to a secluded location where Honken shot him several times and beat him with a baseball bat. The federal drug charges were dropped, and Honken remained a free man.

The victims' bodies were not found until 2000, when Johnson, then serving time for drug charges, drew a map for an informant that led investigators to their graves near Mason City. Iowa doesn't have the death penalty but federal prosecutors intervened, seeking capital punishment because the case involved the killing of federal witnesses and children. Jurors sentenced Honken and Johnson to death after separate trials; Honken remains on death row.

Johnson is charged with five counts of aiding and abetting the murders as part of a continuing criminal enterprise. Prosecutors will argue that she deserves the death penalty because her actions involved substantial planning and premeditation, the adults' deaths were "heinous, cruel, and depraved" because they were tortured and the children were "vulnerable victims."

For each count, jurors will answer "yes or no" as to whether Johnson should be sentenced to death instead of life in prison, Bennett wrote in a 123-page ruling Wednesday defining the scope of the retrial.

Bennett acknowledged the charges theoretically carry the potential range of 20 years to life in prison. But he said allowing jurors to consider the possibility that Johnson could receive a sentence that could allow her release would "create a potential for prejudice" to her, particularly since he has already ruled that he will not sentence her to anything less than life without parole.

Bennett noted the issue put lawyers in the case in an unusual position, with the defense arguing that only the two harshest sentencing options should be considered and prosecutors claiming a lesser sentence was possible. Prosecutors and defense lawyers didn't immediately return messages for comment.

Jurors will also be instructed that they are "never required to impose a death sentence," Bennett wrote.

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