SUNDANCE — If the woman you loved was thrown to the ground in the midst of an argument, would you step in to end the threat by whatever means necessary? If you cannot definitively say you would have made different decisions to the ones Jessie Johnson made on the night Doug Haar died, then you cannot find him guilty of murder.
This was the argument presented in the closing statements of defense attorney Don Fuller, three days after the jury convened to hear the case. In the end, despite what many believed was a clear-cut case for the prosecution, it was the argument with which the jury agreed.
“This is a case about a young man who had to face his tormenter,” Fuller said. “This is about a man’s right to defend himself and his loved ones.” Johnson was acquitted on all charges.
In the early hours of August 1, 2018, three people left the Dime Horseshoe Bar and drove to Sundance Travel Center to purchase snacks.
A love triangle existed between those three people, causing an argument to break out when Marty Smith appeared to choose Johnson over Haar.
As the jury saw for themselves in video footage taken from the scene, the argument turned physical between Smith and Haar; Smith can be seen hitting and slapping Haar, who repeatedly pushes her away and once or twice approaches Johnson. Eventually, Smith falls to the ground and Johnson intervenes.
In the video, Johnson takes Haar to the ground in a headlock and then switches to a chokehold. For six minutes after Haar appears to pass out, he continues to hold this position.
Dr. Thomas Bennett, forensic pathologist, testified that the cause of death was traumatic asphyxia. “He basically couldn’t breathe,” he said, due to the chokehold and the weight of Johnson on top of him.
Bennett noted that the toxicology report for Haar revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.209, which was a significant contributory factor to his death.
“When you are this intoxicated, you’re not able to protect yourself as much,” he told the jury.
From his opening statement onwards, Fuller implied that Johnson was far from the only person culpable for Haar’s death. In Fuller’s words, Haar himself, the “mean drunk” with a “head full of jealousy and belly full of booze,” bears some responsibility for what happened.
Fuller claimed that Smith did not stumble and fall to the ground just before Johnson took action, but that Haar threw her down. He told the jury Haar was “a bully” who attacked Johnson first with a chest bump and then by throwing a punch that missed, but would have had a “powerful” impact if it had not.
But Johnson did not respond to these acts of aggression, Fuller said. He acted only when Smith took damage from what Fuller described as being thrown “violently” into a soda machine.
Fuller pointed out repeatedly that Johnson tried to call for help as the incident unfolded. Johnson asked the store clerk to help him restrain Haar and call 911; he also dialed 911 into his own phone earlier in the argument, but was prevented from completing the call by a chest bump from Haar, Fuller said.
In her closing statements, Deputy County Attorney Linda Black, for the prosecution, said there may have been a different reason that Johnson did not complete his first call to 911. Black suggested Johnson would have known his girlfriend was going to jail “for starting this whole dang mess”, so the argument “did not bode well for the plans he had for that night,” she said.
Black dismissed the concept of self-defense as being relevant during her closing statements, telling the jury that Johnson might have told law enforcement he was being threatened, “But what do the defendant’s actions show?” The only example Johnson gave of Haar being aggressive was something yelled across the bar about Johnson not being a “working man,” she said.
Was Johnson scared? Not too scared to go drinking with Haar, she said.
“More importantly, the defendant left with Doug Haar and Marty Smith,” she added. “He was so scared of Doug, he left in a car with him?”
Johnson arrived at the Turf to see the “love of his life” drinking with her ex, he saw Smith bring her ex to the Dime and then he saw Smith was planning to leave with her ex, Black continued.
“He was concerned Doug and Marty were going to hook up,” she said. “He wasn’t going to let that happen.”
More importantly, Black argued, self-defense is no longer a valid excuse once the other person ceases to be a threat. According to Bennett’s testimony, she said, it’s possible to see the moment in the video when Haar is unconscious and no longer moving.
“At that point, Doug Haar is no longer a threat…that’s when any claim of self-defense ends,” she said. After that, she reminded the jury, Johnson continued the chokehold for six minutes.
Fuller reminded the jury that Johnson told DCI he believed the five-foot-ten Haar to be at least six feet and three inches in height – much bigger than himself. If he’d let Haar go, he thought it would be all over for himself.
“The law says we look through the eyes of Jessie. What was he seeing?” he asked.
Concluding his closing argument, Fuller told the jury, “A man has the right to defend himself against a bully. It’s the law and it’s instinct. Don’t take that away from Jessie.”
After deliberating for several hours, the jury found Johnson not guilty on counts of murder in the second degree; voluntary manslaughter; involuntary manslaughter; and aggravated assault and battery.
Smith was tried in February and found guilty of being an accessory to involuntary manslaughter and an accessory to aggravated assault and battery. Her sentencing is currently scheduled for July 10.