District attorney weighs death penalty

Although a Rifle man has been charged with a murder count potentially punishable by death if he’s convicted, 9th Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson says it will be quite some time before he decides whether to pursue that sentence.

Beeson acknowledged that the decision in the case of Heath Johnston could be complicated by the fact the defendant and the victim are part of the same family. Johnston is accused of shooting and killing his brother, Samuel Johnston, 26.

“That could potentially present some difficult issues,” Beeson said.

He said he hasn’t discussed the matter with the family.

Johnston has been charged with first-degree murder in the Dec. 15 incident. If convicted, he could face life in prison or the death penalty.

Investigators say Johnston has admitted to carrying out the shooting, and he told them his brother was unhappy and had begged to be shot.

Beeson said he will have 60 days after Johnston’s arraignment to decide whether to pursue prosecution as a capital punishment case.

“That’s a decision that’s way off in the future. We haven’t received all the investigative reports. All of the evidence will have to be reviewed before we even undertake the task of considering what an appropriate punishment would be in the event the defendant is found guilty,” Beeson said.

He said one of the criticisms of the death penalty is it is used too often and could be carried out against an innocent person. But he said prosecutors use it sparingly and judiciously.

“We don’t take it lightly,” he said.

One of the last murders in Garfield County that held the potential for being prosecuted as a capital offense also involved someone accused of killing a family member. In 2007, Jesus Hernandez de Jesus shot and killed his 20-year-old nephew at a Glenwood Springs motel.

Authorities called the shooting premeditated. However, Beeson said he agreed to let Hernandez de Jesus plead guilty to second-degree murder because some witnesses were in the country illegally and might not show up for a trial on a first-degree-murder charge.

One consideration for Beeson in the Johnston case could be the possibility that substance abuse may have been a factor. Investigators say they found apparent drug paraphernalia in the home that the brothers shared. A judge ordered Heath Johnston to submit to blood and urine tests, saying they could show the presence of drugs in his body, “which may aggravate or mitigate” his alleged crime.

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