BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Two people convicted of killing a child in unrelated cases that occurred years apart will return to Kern County for hearings to determine if their murder convictions will be tossed.
Coretta Lynn Cooper and James Willis Johnson qualify for hearings to determine their resentencing eligibility under a 2019 change in state law, Fresno’s 5th District Court of Appeal said in separate rulings issued this week.
Cooper, 56, pleaded no contest in 2004 to second-degree murder in the death of a toddler who suffered blunt force trauma. She repeatedly denied harming the boy and said she entered the plea only because she faced possible convictions on first-degree murder and other charges if the case went to trial.
On Monday, the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno overturned a ruling by a Bakersfield judge who had denied Cooper’s petition for a resentencing hearing.
In 2013, James Willis Johnson received a prison term of 31 years to life in the death of his newborn son, who suffered broken arms, legs and ribs, and had burns to his genitalia that became infected.
The Fresno appellate court on Tuesday made a similar ruling in his case.
Dates have not been scheduled for the new hearings, at which prosecutors will have the burden of proving the defendants are ineligible for resentencing.
Assistant District Attorney Joseph Kinzel said Johnson was also convicted of child abuse resulting in death, which carries a 25-years-to-life term. Even if his murder conviction is tossed, that conviction and sentence could remain.
Cooper had faced a similar child abuse charge but it was dismissed as part of her plea. She would be released if her conviction is thrown out.
“It’s a pretty good example of the disparate results that can come from legislative interference in long-final cases that were handled under then-existing laws,” Kinzel said.
The prosecutor said there have been about 95 petitions from Kern County defendants seeking to have their murder convictions vacated since the law took effect.
Beginning Jan. 1, the same process will be made available to anyone with attempted murder or manslaughter convictions.
Dead on arrival
On Aug. 4, 2003, Cooper brought 22-month-old Raymonte Bailey to Kern Medical.
“(Raymonte) was possibly dead upon arrival at the hospital and medical staff noted there was apparent trauma to his abdomen and rectum,” according to a pre-sentence probation report containing a summary from sheriff’s investigators. “At that time homicide proceedings were initiated.”
Cooper told investigators she was the caretaker for Raymonte and his four siblings. She said she never saw injuries on him.
On the morning of his death, she told the boy to get up and he said, “Okay Momma,” then laid down and stopped breathing, Cooper told investigators.
Cooper denied hurting the boy and denied seeing her husband, Keithen Cooper, hurt him or the other children, according to the report.
“She informed the officers she never crossed the line of child abuse while disciplining any of the children and she would cry often afterwards if she did have to discipline the children,” the report said.
Keithen Cooper told investigators he wasn’t currently living with his wife. He said Coyetta Cooper wouldn’t hurt the children.
“I don’t know what happened,” he told detectives. “Just strange.”
Ultimately, Coyetta Cooper pleaded no contest was sentenced to 15 years to life. A no-contest plea isn’t an admission of guilt but is treated as such at sentencing.
Her husband pleaded no contest to multiple counts of sexually abusing a child and received a 16-year prison term, according to court records.
‘Grisly and disturbing’
Johnson, 41, and his girlfriend, Denise Belmonte, were charged with murder in the Nov. 10, 2010, death of their son Jordan.
The baby suffered spiral fractures — meaning his limbs were twisted — to his arms and legs, according to police reports. Burns to his genitalia caused by hot water became infected and turned green. He had a lacerated liver.
The trial judge, John R. Brownlee, said every move the infant made must have been painful.
Johnson and Belmonte blamed each other. Belmonte eventually decided to cooperate with prosecutors and took a plea deal for a 15-year prison term.
She testified at trial that Johnson tied the baby’s arms behind his back and held him upside down. She said he accidentally burned the child in a bath, not realizing a baby’s skin burns far more easily than an adult’s.
A jury convicted Johnson of second-degree murder, child abuse resulting in death, willful cruelty to a child and obstructing or resisting a peace officer.
An appellate court justice who was part of a panel that in 2018 denied Johnson’s motion for a new trial said the facts of the case “are grisly and disturbing, and no one should minimize them.”
At the start of 2019, California’s felony-murder rule was substantially changed.
Previously, defendants could be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life terms in prison in cases where they weren’t the actual killer but committed a dangerous felony such as robbery or burglary that resulted in the death of another person.
Now, the law requires a person to actually commit or aid in a killing, or have the intent to kill, during the commission of a crime in order to be charged with murder. Those who previously could have been charged with murder can now only be charged with the underlying crime, whether it’s robbery, burglary, carjacking or another serious offense.
Coyetta Cooper and Johnson petitioned for resentencing under the altered rule.
Prosecutors opposed Cooper’s petition by arguing the facts in the pre-sentence probation report established she was the “actual killer,” so the change in the law had no bearing on her case.
Defense counsel, however, said it’s not clear what theory the prosecution relied upon. The defense said, “facts ascertained within the police reports and probation report do not clearly establish that (she) directly caused the injuries to (the victim).”
It could be argued, defense counsel said, that Cooper’s husband injured the child while molesting him.
The appellate court agreed that whether Coyetta Cooper personally killed the child was in dispute.
“Put differently, this is not a situation where undisputed facts or admissions by defendant in the record conclusively establish she was only prosecuted as the actual killer or on some other ground rendering her categorically ineligible for relief,” the appellate court said. “Rather, the probation report reflects there was a fact issue regarding defendant’s exact role in the victim’s death.”
In denying Johnson’s resentencing petition, the trial court found him ineligible because he wasn’t convicted under the felony-murder rule or the “natural and probable consequences theory,” which applies to cases where two or more people intend to commit one crime but one of them commits a different or additional crime.
But the appellate court noted the prosecutor put forth multiple theories as to who killed the baby.
The prosecutor argued Johnson was the killer, but also told the jury Johnson would be guilty of murder if Belmonte inflicted the fatal injuries and he did nothing to stop her or didn’t seek medical aid.
“One of the theories argued by the prosecutor was that (Johnson) would be guilty of murder if he aided and abetted Belmonte in committing child endangerment, and the natural and probable consequence of such crime was murder,” the appellate court said. “The prosecutor also argued (Johnson) would be guilty of murder if the jury concluded Belmonte burned the infant and (Johnson) allowed the infant to go untreated, because the infant’s death would be a natural and probable consequence of that negligence.”