York County judge: Alleged Regal Cinemas killer will face death penalty if convicted
A York County judge has ruled that alleged Regal Cinemas killer Anu-Malik Johnson will face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder.
Johnson's defense attorneys had asked presiding Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock to preclude prosecutors from seeking a death sentence in the Dec. 2 slaying of Andre White Jr., 22, of Carlisle.
Trebilcock filed his 11-page order on Monday. What it means is that if jurors convict Johnson of first-degree murder, they will then have to decide whether to sentence him to death or life without parole.
West Manchester Township Police have said there was animosity between Johnson and White, who was fatally shot inside Theater 6 of Regal Cinemas.
Two stray bullets fired by Johnson struck Luisa Torres, who was 22 at the time, police allege. One bullet grazed her right cheek, and the other struck her in the shoulder.
She was merely a bystander, police have said, and one of eight people in the theater when gunfire erupted.
Johnson's defense team argued that the evidence to support the prosecution's sole aggravating factor in seeking the death penalty — that Johnson allegedly created a grave risk of death for someone in addition to White — wasn't sufficient to move forward with a capital case.
Grave risk of death: According to the defense motion, "Mr. Johnson contends that ... the shots that were fired at the decedent, Mr. White, (were) directed solely at him and did not present imminent danger of death to others."
Pennsylvania has a specific list of aggravating circumstances that prosecutors can cite to seek the death penalty, and state law requires they be able to cite at least one.
Trebilcock wasn't convinced by the defense argument.
"The woman next to the actual victim of the crime the Defendant allegedly committed was not only at 'grave risk of death,' she was actually shot in the face," the judge wrote. "Had the bullet, fired in a dark movie theater, struck the second victim in the skull rather than the cheek, the Defendant would likely be on trial for a double homicide. That is clearly evidence of creating a grave risk of death to another person other than the intended victim."
Johnson's defense attorneys also argued that Johnson wasn't yet 21 years old when the homicide occurred.
18 and up: But Trebilcock noted in his Monday order that it's well established in both state and federal courts that defendants can legally face the death penalty when they are 18 and older.
"Furthermore, the Defendant has not stated with any specificity how he was too immature to be culpable for the crime he has allegedly committed," the judge wrote.
Trebilcock also ruled against the defense's argument that because of COVID-19 restrictions, Johnson and defense attorneys Korey Leslie and Jon White have had only limited contact, which the defense argues violates the Sixth Amendment.
The judge noted that Johnson has been able to have contact with his attorneys, perhaps not in person, and perhaps not as often as he'd like, but certainly enough to satisfy the Sixth Amendment requirement.
Also, the judge noted, a trial date hasn't even been set.
The background: Johnson went to the Regal Cinemas with acquaintance Jalen Bellaflores, who testified against Johnson at the alleged killer's preliminary hearing.
Bellaflores 19, of York, is charged with hindering Johnson's apprehension, obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to obstruct justice, but his original homicide charge was withdrawn.
He has admitted that after the shooting, he drove Johnson from the scene.
Andre White Jr. suffered five gunshot wounds in Theater 6 about 10:15 p.m. Dec. 2, West Manchester Township Detective Sgt. Sean Conway has said.
Investigators recovered a total of nine spent shell casings at the scene — all .40 caliber, Conway has said.
According to Bellaflores' preliminary-hearing testimony, Johnson and Andre White saw each other and said "what's up" in a confrontational manner, which Bellaflores said caused him to walk out of the theater.
He testified he heard gunshots after leaving Theater 6 and that afterward Johnson ran up to him and urged him to go. They left together, according to Bellaflores.
Members of the U.S. Marshals Service's fugitive task force captured Johnson in New Jersey on Dec. 18.
Johnson, 21, of no fixed address, remains in York County Prison without bail, charged with first- and third-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault, being a felon in illegal possession of a firearm and five counts of reckless endangerment.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.