Rifle murder trial postponed until fall

Heath Johnston

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A trial scheduled for April for a Rifle man accused of shooting and killing his brother in late 2008 has been postponed until September.

District Court Judge Gail Nichols agreed to the delay Friday and scheduled an April hearing for several motions in the case of Heath Johnston. One of the most recent motions is one by Johnston to withdraw his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Johnston’s public defenders requested the delay because one of them also is handling another trial in coming weeks.

Johnston answered, “Yes,” when asked by Nichols whether he understood that he was waiving his right to a speedy trial by seeking the delay. Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cheney said family members were divided about a postponement.

Johnston, 21, is charged with first-degree murder after allegedly shooting his brother, Samuel, 26, at their home in Rifle on Dec. 15, 2008. He is being held in Garfield County Jail in lieu of $2 million bond.

Johnston had until Friday to decide whether he wanted to withdraw his insanity plea. He has undergone court-ordered mental health testing, but those results are under court seal.

Johnston’s attorneys have sought to suppress reported confessions he made after the shooting. They say he wasn’t advised of his constitutional right to remain silent. In addition, they are challenging searches of the home, including an initial one conducted without a warrant.

A daylong hearing on those and other motions was conducted Wednesday, but Nichols had to set another hearing date of April 13 to continue testimony.

During this week’s testimony, a Rifle police officer said police needed to enter the house to see whether Samuel Johnston was still alive and in need of medical attention, and to make sure no further threat existed. Officers said Johnston made several incriminating statements on his own.

Police say Johnston told them his brother had been unhappy and had asked to be shot.

According to an audio recording played during Wednesday’s hearing, Johnston said at one point after his apprehension, “Would you ever shoot your brother if he asked you to?”

At another point, Johnston reportedly told an officer, “You should Taser me until I catch on fire.”

A three-week trial for Johnston is scheduled to begin Sept. 20.


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