The case against a 19-year-old woman charged with two felonies, arson and criminal mischief, in connection to a fire last summer at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park is now in the hands of the jury.
Twelve jurors broke to deliberate at about 3:30 p.m. Friday after hearing defendant Ashley Rae Johnston testify in her own defense and closing arguments from attorneys.
The case boils down to whether Johnston actually admitted to police that she started the fire and aided and abetted her two codefendants, Ryan M. Martin, 24, and Dillon P. West, 24, both of whom will stand trial in April.
Wearing an oversized white button-down blouse and baggy black Dickies pants, the same outfit she’s worn for the duration of the week-long trial, Johnston took the witness stand and tried to explain the statements she gave to police on June 26, a week after the fire. Police had identified her from surveillance camera video that captured the trio leaving the city-owned park minutes before the fire department arrived, and conducted an interview with her in hopes of getting a confession.
Johnston said under direct examination from her attorney Assistant Public Defender Timothy Ayer that she has no recollection to this day of starting a fire because she was drinking that night and took an unidentified pill.
“I was, like, gone,” she testified.
Under cross-examination, however, Johnston admitted to Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams that she lied several times to police during the interview about what she remembered about that night.
Williams says that the three defendants hopped the chain-link fence onto the park around 1:48 a.m. on June 19, climbed up to the announcer’s booth above the bleachers and caused damage inside, then walked down from the bleachers and started lighting things on fire next to the turf football field, including a John Deere tractor, a hitched trailer and special adhesive glue. The fire caused somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 in total damages and loss to those materials which belonged to a Georgia-based company hired to replace the turf.
During the police interview, Johnston denies being at the park until confronted with a picture of her taken from surveillance camera footage. She then says they were only there because they heard kids setting off fireworks in the parking lot, which she admitted to Williams from the witness stand was a lie. She then is heard on the recording telling police she doesn’t remember much of the night because she was drinking.
A police officer then employs a “ruse,” as he described it in his testimony, by lying to her by saying they have her on camera lighting the fire. Johnston tells them that doesn’t sound like her, but she believes them. She gives police more details about the night, little pieces at a time, as she answers their questions.
Williams argues Johnston changes her story seven or eight more times until finally admitting she remembered observing flames, walking around them, pouring the liquid adhesive on the flames to try extinguish them and trying to light something on fire.
But Ayer argues his client never made an admission, and he urged the jury to listen to the interview again closely while they deliberate.
“If you listen to the whole audio, if you listen to the whole thing, you’ll hear she doesn’t really make all the admissions she’s accused of making,” Ayer said. “She gives a lot of conditionals, a lot of ‘I would have,’ ‘I probably did’ or ‘I might have.’ But she never says I did. Because she doesn’t remember.”
Ayer specifically points to a portion of the interview wherein officers ask Johnston if she “got down like this with the lighter, or was that Ryan or Dillon? Because the investigation shows that you’re the one who did that.”
“A) No, it didn’t,” Ayer said. “B) Her response was ‘Might have been me.’ Not an admission. A statement of somebody who doesn’t know, isn’t going to say no it wasn’t me because she can’t say that because she doesn’t know. She says it might have been me.”
On the witness stand, Johnston told Ayer she believed police when they told her they had her on video starting the fire. She continued to provide them with details from that night because she was trying to be helpful.
“I thought that’s what they wanted to hear,” she said. “And I was just trying to help them out. ... Because they said I did it, and they want to hear information so I gave them information. ... Because they wanted details.”
Johnston said she had agreed to talk to the officers because she thought she was going to be cited again for minor consuming, which she readily admitted. That’s something Ayer brought up in closing, “She was making stuff up because she thought the police wanted to hear it, not because she was covering anything up. I think that’s pretty clear that during the interview that she’s not trying to cover anything up. She admitted to drinking, which for her was a crime. She admitted that she was on the field, which is a crime. She admitted I climbed over the fence, and she knew that wasn’t the right thing to do. She said I guess that makes me a trouble maker, too. She wasn’t trying to hide anything from them. She was admitted to crimes that she could remember having committed.”
Under cross, Johnston admitted to lying about the firecrackers in the parking lot and when she told police she didn’t remember being there.
At one point, Williams asked Johnston if it was a lie when Johnson told police that she didn’t see any flames. Johnston said ‘yes’ that was a lie, then paused, and said, “I mean no.”
“Oh, you changed your mind?” Williams asked.
“You try being up here in front of a lot of people you don’t know, and being mean,” Johnston said, rattled.
During closing arguments, Williams attacked Johnston’s credibility, citing her changing stories.
“Let’s look at the progression here,” Williams said. “She wasn’t there at all; she left after they saw these nonexistent kids; she sat and waited for them while they burned something down; then she poured a liquid all over the fire herself; and then she says I’m not saying I didn’t do it, because myself, I don’t entirely know what happened that night. And that was in her interview. Now even today on the witness stand she said — she didn’t say she didn’t start the fire, she never testified to that. What she said was, I can’t believe I’d do something like that, but I don’t remember. That was her testimony. I can’t believe I’d do something like that, but I don’t remember. But she would do something like that. All the rest of her conduct indicates that she would do something like that. She climbed the fence, she broke into the field, she spider-monkeyed her way up the announcer’s booth and around the back, she was there for that destruction. She came back down. She participated in all of those things. She gave those details, she made those admissions.”
The motive for the fire? Williams points to the recorded interview where Johnston tells police she wanted to “look cool” and hang out with the two men because they were giving her alcohol and she wanted to drink with them.
“That’s absolutely inconsistent with her claims that she wasn’t involved,” Williams said. “It’s absolutely consistent with the video evidence, and it’s consistent with her participating in starting these fires that caused $30,000 in loss and damages.”
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Williams added that “the ruse” used by police in fact provided Johnston an opportunity to deny her involvement. Police expected to hear a firm denial, but instead they received a “telling” response, Williams said.
“A long pause, the big ‘Um,’ and then, ‘That doesn’t sound like something I’d do,’ or as she put it today, ‘I cant believe I’d do something like that, but I don’t remember’,” Williams said.
In his closing, Ayer argued his client can not deny something that she doesn’t have a memory of.
“She doesn’t remember that night, she doesn’t remember a lot of that night, she testified to that. She told the police that she doesn’t remember a lot of it, and they say, ‘Well, we have a video of you setting a fire.’ You wouldn’t expect her to say ‘No, I’d never do that,’ because she didn’t remember the evening. If she remembered the evening, she’d say no I didn’t do it. But she doesn’t remember it, so what does she say? What you expect her to say: ‘Well, it doesn’t sound like me, but you say you got a video of it, so...’. And that’s her position through the whole thing. What can she be expected to say? She’s doesn’t remember, she doesn’t have a good recollection of it, they say we have this video of you doing it. Is she going to say, ‘No, you don’t. I don’t remember the night though.’ She’s not going to do that. What she’s supposed to do is exactly what she did: ‘That doesn’t sound like me’.”
Ayer went on to say that the state wants jurors to believe that Johnston wasn’t blacked out because she’s seen on video camera riding her bike. But Ayer pointed out that’s before they hopped the fence into the park — and before she downed a bottle of alcohol and about an hour and a half before the fire department responded to the scene.
“That’s not inconsistent, that’s just inconvenient,” he said.
Ayer said the state successfully distracted jurors with days of testimony of images and descriptions of “black billowing smoke” and fire damage. He said the only thing the state’s proved is that there was a fire, and that his client was there.
“That’s not enough,” he said, adding that the jury has to find that Johnston had an active role in lighting the fire with the intent of damaging a motor vehicle on municipal land.
Williams shot back in her rebuttal that the real ‘distraction’ from the case was the so-called ruse police used in their interview.
“It’s interesting that Mr. Ayer would use the word convenient,” Williams added. “That stuck out to me. ‘The state wants you to believe these things because it’s inconvenient otherwise.’ You know what’s really convenient?” Williams asked. “Memory. Memory is really convenient. ... I think that Ms. Johnston is probably the best example of that.”
Williams added that Johnston can be found guilty of aiding and abetting her codefendants if she intended to promote or facilitate the damage of property and if she planned and helped commission the crime.
“We know her intent because she admitted, ‘I had it in my mind to look cool’,” Williams said. “What do the cool kids do? Well, that night, the cool kids set fire to $30,000 worth of equipment belonging to the City and Borough of Juneau and Shaw Sportexe. That’s what the cool kids do. Why is she going to stop when she’s come this far? When she’s been accepted?”
The jury deliberated Friday until about 4:20 p.m. Deliberations will resume 8 a.m. Monday morning.
Before deliberations began, one of the original 13 jurors was chosen at random to be the alternate and was excused. That leaves seven men and five women to hear the case.
If convicted, Johnston could be facing up to five years in jail for each of the felony counts. She is also facing a criminal trespass charge, a misdemeanor.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.