A Dallas jury on Friday sentenced a 38-year-old man who has an extensive violent past to die for the murder of a 76-year-old convenience store clerk he doused with lighter fluid and set on fire during a robbery last May.
Evidence during the trial and a police report released in the case revealed that Matthew Lee Johnson entered the Fina convenience store shortly after 7 a.m. on May 20, 2012, walked behind the cash register and doused Nancy Harris with lighter fluid and set her on fire as he took cigarettes, money, a lighter, and a ring from one of Harris’ fingers. He is then seen on video calmly leaving the store with Harris on fire.
Garland police officers arrived within minutes and were able to extinguish the fire, but not before she had suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of her body. A police officer told the jury Harris had burned for close to two minutes before police could put out the fire.
“The video horrific in that [Harris] is seen with her head on fire as she flees from behind the counter area and [Johnson] simply strolls out the front door,” the report says.
One juror watched with his right hand over his mouth. Another juror rubbed his hands as the video showed Nancy Harris at a sink trying to extinguish the fire. When the video showed Harris walking through the store, her upper body ablaze, the man raised both hands to his mouth, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Harris died five days later at Parkland Hospital, without ever being able to speak to police or family members.
Detectives were able to view two videotapes from the store’s surveillance cameras minutes after they arrived which showed Johnson and Harris were the only two in the store at the time of the robbery.
Johnson was arrested a short time later after he had tried force his way into a nearby residence. Police recognized his face from the store’s video and also found a lighter, a ring belonging to Harris and other property he had taken from the store.
According to the Dallas Morning News Johnson’s attorney told jurors in closing arguments, there is “no evidence that he purposely took that lighter and set her on fire … They have not proven he intentionally set Nancy Harris on fire. However, Assistant District Attorney Andrea Mosley, argued to jurors “How could you not look at that video and not know immediately what his intent was?”
After deliberating a little over two hours, the jury convicted Johnson of capital murder last week.
Johnson blames his drug use since age seven for his actions
The convicted murderer blamed the robbery and murder on his crack cocaine habit saying he had been up the night before smoking crack and needed money to buy more drugs. Johnson said his drug use started when he first smoked marijuana at age seven.
Prosecutors reminded him in questioning that he had ample opportunities to seek treatment for his drug addiction. Indeed, according to a prosecution court filing, in March 1999 Johnson was removed from a drug treatment program for tampering with a drug test. Just a month later his probation was revoked for missing his first appointment while he was in another drug program.
Less than a month before the murder Johnson had been released from prison after serving a six-year sentence for selling and using drugs, court records show.
According to courtroom video from Dallas CBS-Affiliate KTVT, Johnson told jurors during the punishment phase on Monday that he felt like the lowest scum on earth and asked jurors to spare his life. “I’m sorry. I asked for yall’s forgiveness. I asked for mercy. Not for the sake of me, but for the sake of my children and my wife,” he said. He added, “If it were just me, I would want the same thing done to me, or hung.”
He also claimed to have been sexually abused as a child.
In recounting the murder to jurors Johnson told jurors he went in the store just to “scare” Harris. “When she came close to me I just poured the fluid over her head, at that time I remember she was started trembling,” he told jurors.
Johnson’s attorney told jurors that a life in prison would be the appropriate sentence, saying he suffers from drug addiction, and severe depression.
In an effort to paint a picture that Johnson is a caring, loving man, family members took the stand Tuesday and asked jurors to spare his life.
Telling jurors that Johnson has, “a good personality, he’s a good person,” his mother-in-law pleaded for his life adding, “he try and help anybody or anything,“ according to video of the trial from KTVT.
Johnson’s older brother who is in prison for robbery told jurors his brother has been a “good father” to his three children saying, ““He take care of them, like any father.”
Court filing details Johnson’s two-decade history of violence and sex crimes
Johnson’s almost constant life of crime started at 15 when he stole a car. A prosecution court document details Johnson’s extensive and disturbing two decade history of assaulting police, robbing and assaulting the elderly, women and his wife, as well as serious drug and sex crimes. His first assault occurred in September 1991 when he punched his ex-girlfriend in the face and “[threw] burning wood onto [her] porch while she and her children were inside.”
In August 1995, Johnson severely beat his then girlfriend’s sister and repeatedly called her during the night from jail saying, “You’ll get yours when [I am] back on the street.” In September 2003, after being released from prison, Johnson went to another one of his ex-girlfriend’s house, “kicked in the back door, pulled Daphene out of bed by the hair. He punched her in the head and face.” As a result of the beating she took from Johnson she was unable “to go to work for about two weeks,” the document said.
While in a Texas prison for assault and robbery in July 2005 Johnson’s assault on an inmate was so severe that the inmate had to be hospitalized and required 11 staples to his head. Less than a year later, in February 2006 he committed a sexual act in front of a female guard, the document alleged.
Last May Johnson attempted to force his way into an elderly man’s house who he intended to rob. “Mr. Marecle is an elderly man and was very sick with a serious illness at the time of the assault and robbery,” the court document alleges. The document added, “When confronted, the defendant struggled with Mr. Marecle and pushed him to the ground and took his glasses”
While Johnson was in the Dallas County Jail awaiting trial on this case, in violation of prison rules he had another inmate tattoo his chest that says “Gift from God,” according to the court filing.
In all, court documents show Johnson has committed 25 serious assault and sexual offenses since September 1991; has intentionally violated prison rules over five times; has been convicted six times for drug offenses and driving while intoxicated; has three convictions for theft, and has been convicted four times for assaulting or threatening police.
The 11 women and one man jury deliberated just over a day before sentencing Johnson to die by lethal injection. Before reaching their decision jurors asked to rewatch the store video showing the robbery and Johnson setting Nancy Harris on fire.
It is clear from the notes the jury sent to the judge while they were deciding Johnson’s fate they were concerned about him committing violent crimes in the future. Jurors requested several times to see his criminal history and a power point exhibit admitted during the trial which showed Johnson was likely to commit future violent crimes.
While Johnson’s conviction will automatically be reviewed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, he will be transferred to Death Row at the Polunsky Unit just outside Huntsville. The average time spent on spent on Texas’ Death Row awaiting execution is a little over 10 years according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.