DA reverses course on death penalty in movie theater killing
The death penalty is off the table now in a case alleging a man killed another man and injured a woman when he opened fire in a movie theater.
Anu-Malik Johnson, 23, faces first-degree murder and other charges from the death of Andre White Jr., 22, of Carlisle, at the Regal Cinemas theater in the West Manchester Town Center shopping complex in December 2019.
The other victim, a woman who wasn’t affiliated with either of the men, was shot twice in the incident, including by a bullet that grazed her cheek, police alleged.
Nearly four months later, following Johnson’s arrest, the York County District Attorney’s Office in March 2020 filed intentions to seek the death penalty for Johnson, if convicted.
The process meant if a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, prosecutors would then ask the jurors to decide whether he should receive a death sentence or life in prison. A life sentence without possibility of parole is automatic for defendants convicted of first-degree murder under Pennsylvania law.
A common pleas court judge upheld the prosecution’s plan later that year.
Judge Craig Trebilcock rejected challenges by Johnson’s attorneys, including their assertion the evidence didn’t support allegations that the shooting created a risk of death for someone other than White.
On Tuesday, about two years after Trebilcock’s decision, the D.A.’s office asked to withdraw the intent to seek the death penalty.
The motion cites consideration of a mitigation report Johnson’s defense attorneys submitted, along with “relevant case law and applicable jury instructions.”
Judge Maria Musti Cook granted the request.
Jonathan White, Johnson’s attorney, said he “hoped and believed” prosecutors would pull the death penalty plan.
“I believe they made the right decision,” he said.
Kyle King, the D.A.’s office spokesperson, declined to provide a statement.
“We do not comment on pending matters,” he said.
White and co-counsel Korey Leslie had brought in a mitigation specialist to speak to Johnson earlier this year as part of defense preparation, according to court records.
White declined to talk to The York Dispatch about content in the mitigation report at this time.
Johnson is charged with first- and third-degree murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault, illegal possession of a firearm and three counts of reckless endangerment.
He and another man, Jalen Bellaflores, went into Regal’s theater 6, where the film “Queen and Slim” was showing, the night of Dec. 2, 2019, police said. They were two of eight people to take seats in the theater for that movie. Andre White Jr. and a woman with him went in next.
A witness told police that White briefly exchanged words with Johnson as he and the woman made their way to seats in the back row, according to court documents.
Another witness in the theater alleged Johnson and Bellaflores got up and moved back a row to two new seats, police said. Bellaflores allegedly got up again a few moments later and went to the exit doors.
Seconds after that, witnesses said Johnson stood up, walked to the back row and opened fire on White.
He allegedly kept shooting as he ran for the exit to flee with Bellaflores.
Two bullets struck the woman who was sitting in a row in front of White, with one injuring her shoulder and the other grazing her cheek, police said.
White was shot five times.
Nine spent shell casings were recovered in the theater as part of the investigation, police said.
West Manchester Township Police said images from security camera video matched witness descriptions of Johnson. He was identified by York City Police officers and detectives who saw the images, the criminal complaint in the case shows.
A trial date for Johnson has not yet been set.
White, the attorney, believed a request to set a date could be filed in a week or so, and he thought the case could go before a jury by about March 2023.
Bellaflores, meanwhile, was also charged in the case, facing counts of hindering Johnson's apprehension, obstruction of law enforcement, conspiracy to obstruct law enforcement and tampering with evidence.
He's next scheduled to appear in court in January 2023, court records show.
— Reach Aimee Ambrose at email@example.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.