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Focus on DNA as murder trial begins Victim was stabbed, nearly decapitated

A prosecutor told a Niagara County Court jury Tuesday that Robert E. Johnson brutally murdered his wife Jan. 17, stabbing her 49 times, nearly decapitating her and leaving three knife blades broken off in her body.

No, he didn't, a defense attorney countered, promising an alibi and DNA evidence that point to another killer.

The stage thus was set for a trial expected to last two weeks.

Assistant District Attorney Lisa M. Baehre told the jury that she and her colleague, Charles F. Pitarresi, will call about 40 witnesses to show that Johnson, 26, was the killer of Ahkenya Johnson, 32, in the kitchen of their apartment in Jordan Gardens in Niagara Falls.

"It was brutal, ladies and gentlemen. It was vicious," Baehre said. "It was this defendant who nearly decapitated that mother of his child. Can you imagine how much force it takes to break a knife? Can you imagine the hatred, the anger?"

Defense attorney Michael W. McNelis said he is going to offer phone records and testimony from a barber to show that Robert Johnson was getting a haircut at the time police say Ahkenya Johnson was killed.

"On Jan. 17, the police rushed to judgment," McNelis said. "It's their job to prove his guilt, and they cannot. . . . [Robert] could not have been in the house at the time the crime was committed, and if he wasn't in the house at the time the crime was committed, he's innocent."

Baehre focused on blood samples that show the woman's blood all over Johnson's clothes and even in a basement basin and sink trap. One of the bloody knife handles was placed back in the kitchen drawer, she said.

And, Baerhe said, there were no footprints in the snow outside the home in an outbound direction that would support the hypothesis of another killer.

But McNelis, who is joined at the defense table by Theodore W. Janese III, countered that among the many samples in the case were tests that showed an unknown third person's DNA on Robert Johnson's shoes and socks, mixed in with his own DNA and that of his wife.

The defense contends that Robert Johnson became bloody when he returned home, found his wife and knelt beside her to see if she had a pulse or was breathing. It was Johnson himself who called 911; the tape is to be played during the trial.

The crime scene photos are so gory that the attorneys agreed to show the jury very few and to leave them on the video screen for only a short time to keep the jury from being distracted.

Baehre said she would call friends and relatives of the Johnsons to try to show a motive for murder.

"Since the beginning of this four-year marriage, [Robert] believed [Ahkenya] was having an affair, that she didn't love him," Baehre said. "And this belief turned out to be true."

Baehre said the victim started an affair with an ex-boyfriend when he was released from prison in August 2008. And at about the same time, Johnson started an affair with another woman.

McNelis said that information doesn't prove Johnson is guilty of murder. "Most of it isn't going to prove anything but a bad marriage," he said.

McNelis said that Robert Johnson himself was stabbed last October by an intruder in the home, in a still-unsolved case. "[Police] don't put it together. They ignored it," McNelis told the jury. "They convicted him on Jan. 17. But you don't have to."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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