Jurors will answer a single question at the upcoming death penalty retrial of Angela Johnson: whether she deserves to die for 5 drug-related murders instead of spending the rest of her life in prison.
U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett said Wednesday jurors will be instructed that he will impose a prison sentence of life without parole even if one of them doesn’t believe the former Iowa woman should be executed.
The ruling is a victory for Johnson’s defense, which argued jurors could be persuaded to support her death if they feared she could one day be released from prison.
The June trial will determine the sentence Johnson should receive for the 1993 killings. Bennett threw out a Johnson’s original death sentence last year after finding her defense was inadequate.
Johnson and her then-boyfriend Dustin Honken, a chemistry whiz who became one of the Midwest’s first methamphetamine kingpins, were convicted of killing three adults and two children to thwart a federal investigation into his multistate drug business. The victims included two former dealers for Honken who were cooperating with investigators; one of their girlfriends, and her two children who happened to be home when Honken and Johnson came looking for them.
Prosecutors said Johnson posed as a saleswoman to get into one of their homes in 1993, days before Honken was to plead guilty to drug charges. Honken and Johnson forced one of the dealers to make a videotaped statement exonerating Honken, then took him, his girlfriend and the children to a field, where they were each shot in the back of the head. Months later, Johnson lured a second dealer, who was her former boyfriend, to a secluded location where Honken shot him several times and beat him with a baseball bat.
The drug charges were dropped, and Honken remained a free man.
The victims’ bodies were not found until 2000, when Johnson drew a map for a jailhouse informant that led authorities 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 witnesses and children. Jurors sentenced Honken, who remains on death row, and Johnson to death after separate trials.