A Perry County man will remain on death row after the Kentucky Supreme Court this week declined to toss out his guilty plea and death sentence stemming from the 1989 murder of 70-year-old Helen Madden.
Donald Herb Johnson, 46, was arrested in November 1989 after he brutally murdered Madden at the Bright ‘n Clean Laundry in Hazard. Madden was “beaten, stabbed, mutilated, and tortured to death in the supply storage room of the Laundromat where she worked,” according to the record cited in the Supreme Court decision released on Tuesday. She had been stabbed 20 times and sexually assaulted, according to news reports from the time.
Special Judge John David Caudill was assigned to the case, and accepted Johnson’s guilty plea in 1994. Three years later, Caudill sentenced Johnson to death following a sentencing trial in which Caudill viewed a 25-minute video of the crime scene, and heard opening remarks from the prosecutor that Johnson had bitten Madden in the arm and genitals, and that she was alive when her “hair was pulled from her scalp.”
Johnson has maintained since his death sentence was finalized in 1997 that Caudill had promised him a lengthy prison sentence in lieu of the death penalty if he pleaded guilty, and that his defense attorney had bullied him into entering a guilty plea by threatening to withdraw from the case.
The state Supreme Court, however, ruled this week there is no evidence supporting Johnson’s claim that Caudill had worked out a deal behind the scenes, and at best the only facts to support his motion is that he turned down a possible plea offer from the prosecution which could have resulted in the plea he was seeking.
Supreme Court Justice Mary Noble wrote in the court’s decision that it may be possible that “funding concerns” could have driven Judge Caudill to “nudge the case toward a plea agreement,” since at the time in the 1990s the county would have been responsible for paying much of the defense’s costs. But there is no proof that Caudill acted outside of his authority as trial judge.
“Ultimately, the proof in this case is more consistent with the idea that at most, Judge Caudill had inquired about the possibility of a deal being reached in the case,” Noble wrote.
Johnson’s claims that his attorneys, Mike Williams and Kelly Gleason, had coerced him to plead guilty through a threat to withdraw from the case are also unfounded, the court ruled, as those claims contradict each other.
“He claims on the one hand that he pleaded guilty because he believed his lawyer had obtained a favorable back-room deal for him but on the other hand that he pleaded guilty because his lawyer threatened to quit,” the ruling reads. “In other words, he complains alternately that he was coerced by the carrot or the stick. But if he entered the plea because of the alleged deal, then why would his lawyer have to threaten him?”
Though Johnson will remain on death row, all state executions are on currently hold as a judge in Franklin County is expected to weigh in on the state’s new method of lethal injections.