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Johnson Gets Death in Slaying of Deputy

Courts: Judge follows jury's recommendation in handing down sentence for shooting of Peter J. Aguirre.

April 28, 1998|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — Convicted cop killer Michael Raymond Johnson was sentenced to death Monday after the victim's family vented their sorrow at the loss of the 26-year-old officer.

Following a jury's March recommendation, Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren ordered the execution of Johnson, who fatally shot Ventura County Sheriff's Deputy Peter J. Aguirre in July 1996.

Moments earlier, Aguirre's widow, Enedina, looked Johnson in the eye from less than 5 feet away, and in cold, even tones told him she wants to be there the day he dies.

"I hope that you burn in hell," she told Johnson, reading from tiny pieces of note paper she had folded and refolded in the hours she waited to give her final testimony.

"I think people like you do not deserve to live. You do not deserve to breathe the same air we breathe. I hope to God I will be there the day you die--that's all I want to see is the same pain and agony you saw in Peter's eyes."

The sheriff's deputy was shot four times when he responded to a domestic disturbance call in Meiners Oaks. He died before he could draw his gun.

Johnson fired the final shot at point-blank range into Aguirre's forehead, evidence showed.

Jurors had said after the penalty phase in March that it was the final shot that convinced them Johnson should be put to death for his crime. After a six-week trial, that jury in January took just one day to convict Johnson of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Aguirre.

Testimony during the penalty phase was so heart-wrenching that at one point the judge had to send weeping jurors from the courtroom.

After that verdict, the court made a psychologist available to talk to jurors still troubled by the case. Six turned up.

Sentencing was originally scheduled for April 8, but defense attorneys asked for more time after a last-minute motion filed by the prosecution.

Defense attorneys spent Monday morning trying to block the sentencing, making accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and seeking a new trial. But Perren, while criticizing one prosecutor's conduct, ruled that Johnson had received a fair trial.

After that, the Aguirre family described its grief for the court one final time.

Johnson, his face now grizzled with a gray beard, listened stoically as family members poured out their emotions. At times he turned his head to meet their eyes, then averted them again.

*

Enedina Aguirre said the only thing that has kept her from taking her life since her husband died is knowing that she must care for her young daughter, Gabby.

Peter Aguirre's mother, speaking through tears, gripped the podium for support and stared straight at Johnson.

"Two years after his death, our lives have come to a standstill," Marie Aguirre said. "It's as if he died last night. . . . I want to ask Michael Johnson, what right did he have to kill Peter Aguirre? Where was the mercy?"

She spoke of the anger she felt as she sat through court proceedings day after day, and of having nowhere to go when she wanted to cry.

"You would bring out Johnson, dressed in fine suits with his hair cut," she said to defense attorneys seated before her. "And you would ask him if he wanted his shirt starched or mildly starched, when on the floor was a picture of my son, his shirt bloodied and torn.

"Why should his life be spared," she asked the court, "when someone like Peter had to die?"

With his voice cracking and tears rolling down behind his glasses, Peter Aguirre's father told Johnson he will be waiting with his family at every appeal Johnson has. As Peter Aguirre Sr. was about to conclude, his wife rushed from the courtroom sobbing.

With that, Perren handed down his sentence.

"It is the order of this court that you shall suffer the death penalty," he said to Johnson. "And until that time you shall remain within the walls of the state prison at San Quentin."

Even if the death sentence is overturned, Johnson will face a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

*

The courtroom was so crowded Monday, extra seats were placed in the aisles. Relatives, top law enforcement officials--including Ventura County Sheriff Larry Carpenter--and at least six jurors were there.

After the sentence was read, Aguirre's mother sobbed uncontrollably in the hall as friends and relatives tried to comfort her.

Johnson's mother, Wilma, had sat pale and silent through the morning's proceedings, but did not return for the afternoon.

Outside the courtroom, Carpenter told reporters the death sentence was the appropriate punishment for Johnson. But he added that even the state's most severe penalty could not heal the wounds caused by the 1996 shooting.

"I don't think there is any such thing as closure," he said. "The death penalty doesn't mean they haul him up there and execute him. It will go on and on," he said of the legal process.

Johnson is the 10th Ventura County killer to be subject to the death penalty since capital punishment was reinstated 20 years ago.

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