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Provo judge: Convicted child rapist may go free

Published April 1, 2011 9:14 pm

Court • Judge rules Lonnie Johnson is not a risk to society.
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Provo • An administrative judge ruled Friday that — despite a prior felony conviction for raping a teenage girl, and a slew of pending child-sex abuse allegations — Lonnie Hyrum Johnson is not a danger to society.

Judge James Brady said he was compelled by statute to make that finding, which means Johnson, 38, may walk free after a hearing next Thursday in Provo's 4th District Court.

Deputy Utah County Attorney Craig Johnson, no relation to the defendant, says the case highlights a serious loophole in the law.

"It's a complete breakdown of our judicial system," the prosecutor said after a hearing at the Utah State Hospital, where Lonnie Johnson has been living for nearly three years.

Craig Johnson had argued that Lonnie Johnson — deemed by a district court judge to be mentally incompetent — should be civilly committed to the state mental hospital for up to life because he apparently cannot be made well enough to stand trial.

"He is a threat to society," Craig Johnson told reporters. "He is a high risk to re-offend."

During the hearing, the prosecutor presented evidence of Lonnie Johnson's 2006 conviction in Washington state for rape of a minor, a 17-year-old girl, as well as information about pending Utah charges alleging he sexually abused two girls over a five-year period beginning in 2001.

But Craig Johnson said his arguments were trumped by the testimony of three psychiatrists who claim Lonnie Johnson is not a danger to himself or others, and therefore is not a candidate for civil commitment under the law.

Craig Johnson said that during the hearing, which was closed to the public, Brady stated he was bound by statute to dismiss the state's petition for civil commitment.

"He said he cannot take the current charges into account, and that the Washington conviction was not enough to outweigh the doctors' conclusions," Craig Johnson said. "The statute is not broad enough to determine he is a risk to society."

The prosecutor said one problem with the current statute is that it does not specifically address any "risk" that does not include "serious bodily injury."

For civil commitment, the person in question must, due to a mental illness, pose a "substantial danger" to himself or others. The definition of substantial danger includes death, extreme physical pain, obvious disfigurement and "protracted loss or impairment ... of a bodily member, organ or mental faculty."

The statute does not refer to sex crimes or encompass the "serious emotional distress" suffered by sex-crime victims, Craig Johnson said. "That is a gap," he said, "a loophole" in the law that ought to be fixed by legislators.

Craig Johnson said Friday's ruling brings an end to all avenues for keeping Lonnie Johnson off the streets through a civil proceeding.

But the prosecutor believes he has one last chance: convincing 4th District Judge James Taylor to keep the criminal case against Lonnie Johnson alive by re-addressing his prior decision that Lonnie Johnson cannot be restored to competency.

The prosecutor said that while doctors had previously claimed Lonnie Johnson could not be made well enough to stand trial, the man's treatment team is now saying there are things they have not tried.

Craig Johnson said he will ask Taylor on Thursday to set a hearing for the defendant's treating doctors to explain those untried options to the court.

The prosecutor said the defendant has been diagnosed with "cognitive disorder," which he said is not treatable with drugs. "Medications were never an issue for Lonnie Johnson, never a treatment option," he said.

The defendant's estranged wife, Cheri Johnson, said he is dyslexic, but otherwise functions normally, noting that he "owned a very successful stone masonry company."

"He is faking," she said Friday, adding, "Because [doctors] can't prove to what extent [he is faking], they have to say he's incompetent."

The woman scoffed at the notion that Lonnie Johnson is not a danger to others. "I guess they don't consider that molesting small girls and teenagers is hurting someone," she said. "I don't get it."

Brandi Webber, who is Cheri Johnson's daughter and Lonnie Johnson's step-daughter, said, "He is a danger, he definitely is."

Webber, now 19, said she suffered "emotional and physical damage" from being repeatedly raped by her step-father as a girl growing up in Lehi and Saratoga Springs.

"It's sickening that he's getting out," she said.

Christy Danner, the mother of Lonnie Johnson's other alleged Utah victim, said she is "horrified" by the turn of events and plans to do what she can to get the law changed.

"We've all decided, that no matter what happens to Lonnie, we're going to keep fighting," Danner said, vowing: "This loophole will never be used again in this state."

Liz Sollis, with the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the Utah State Hospital, acknowledged that while there may be a possible gap in the law, everyone involved in the Lonnie Johnson case is "doing what they are supposed to do."

"Unfortunately, sometimes the criminal justice system doesn't always work the way people hope it's going to work and victims suffer the consequences," she said.

Lonnie Johnson is currently charged in 4th District Court with 21 criminal counts ranging from child rape and sodomy upon a child to aggravated sexual abuse of a child. All are first-degree felonies punishable by up to life in prison.

Meanwhile, publicity about Lonnie Johnson has prompted a new potential victim to call prosecutors claiming the defendant sexually abused her and two neighbor girls 20 years ago. Craig Johnson said that because these new alleged victims were older than 14 at the time, the statute of limitations for filing charges has expired.

Attending Friday's hearing were a half-dozen members of Lonnie Johnson's family, including his mother, Wanona Johnson Pixton, who reportedly told the hearing judge her son was "a perfect child who has never hurt anyone."






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