ELKTON — A man who shot his aunt in the head and then beat her to death inside her Elkton-area residence in October 2018 received a maximum 40-year sentence Tuesday – five days after a Cecil County Circuit Court jury acquitted his co-defendant of all charges.
The defendant, Jacob Michael Johnston, 26, of Elkton, opted to take a binding plea deal, instead of going to trial, and he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped several related charges, including first-degree murder, which is punishable by up to life in prison.
Johnston killed Karen Johnston Colclough, 60, inside her residence in the 500 block of Augustine Herman Highway (Route 213), south of Elkton, on Oct. 18, 2018.
During his co-defendant’s murder trial last week, Johnston testified as a state witness and gave his account of how Colclough was killed — fulfilling one of the requirements of his binding plea deal, which was arranged with prosecutors in May and was carried out Tuesday.
On the stand Oct. 30, Johnston told jurors that he robbed Colclough because he needed money to support his raging heroin addiction.
Johnston also testified that during the course of the ransack-the-house robbery, he shot his aunt in the head with her handgun, which, unbeknownst to him, was loaded with “snake shot,” ammunition that is filled with small pellets and is used to kill birds and small rodents at close range.
That gunshot to the head knocked his aunt to the floor, leaving her only stunned, and that’s when – according to Johnston’s testimony – his alleged accomplice, Greggory Lee Johnson, 39, of North Carolina, beat Colclough in the head with a small fireplace shovel and then with an aluminum baseball bat numerous times.
A medical examiner testified last week that the “snake shot” that Jacob Johnston admittedly fired at his aunt caused only superficial wounds to her and that blunt-force trauma to the head from the baseball bat and shovel blows caused Colclough’s death.
On Thursday, a day after Johnston had testified as a state witness, jurors deliberated less than an hour before finding Greggory Johnson “not guilty” of first-degree murder and all other related charges in the case.
That set the scene for Tuesday’s formalization of Jacob Johnston’s binding plea agreement because, despite the acquittal of his co-defendant, he had met all the requirements of the deal.
Cecil County Circuit Court Judge William W. Davis Jr. noted from the bench that he could impose only a 40-year sentence on Jacob Johnston, in accordance with the binding plea deal’s agreed-upon penalty.
Davis then remarked that addiction is the catalyst in one way or another in 90 percent of the criminal cases in Cecil County. Jacob Johnston’s addiction to heroin, however, pushed him to commit the worst possible crime, the judge emphasized.
“We can’t bring her back,” Davis said, referring to Jacob Johnston’s aunt. “You let your addiction go so far (that) you took a life.”
Davis listed public safety, deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment as the goals of a sentence and then commented, “When you get this far, it’s not about rehabilitation anymore. It’s about punishment.”
The judge explained that the main intent, at this point, is to remove Jacob Johnston from society and keep him out of it for as long as possible — within the boundaries of the binding plea agreement.
Shackled, handcuffed and clad in a canary-yellow inmate uniform, Jacob Johnston stood beside his Harford County-based panel attorney, Shane Nolan, during the sentencing phase of Tuesday’s hearing.
Jacob Johnston declined his right to address the judge before sentencing.
Because second-degree murder is considered a crime of violence, Jacob Johnston must serve half of his sentence – 20 years – before he would be eligible for his first parole hearing. He would be about 46 years old then.
According to court officials, however, murder convicts in Maryland typically serve at least about 80 percent of their sentences. Based on that, Jacob Johnston likely will serve approximately 32 years of his 40-year prison term. At that point, he would be about 58 years old.
“You’re going to get out,” Davis told Jacob Johnston from the bench.
The judge expressed his hope that Jacob Johnston would receive the counseling and training that he needs while in prison, so that he would “be useful” when he is released at least two decades from now.
“I hope you don’t fall victim to the same demons,” Davis told Jacob Johnston.
Deputy State’s Attorney Patricia Fitzgerald and Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Sentman represented the state during Tuesday’s plea/sentencing hearing.
They also served as the prosecutors during Greggory Johnson’s four-day-long murder trial last week.
After the jury acquitted Greggory Johnson of all charges, Interim Cecil County State’s Attorney James Dellmyer issued a statement.
“Our prosecutors presented the strongest case, based on the available evidence to the jury in the case. I’m proud of the work that the Maryland State Police and my prosecutors did. The ‘not guilty’ verdict is a (part) of the truth-finding nature of the jury trial process, and we respect the verdict this jury rendered,” Dellmyer said, adding, “Irrespective of the jury’s verdict, we continue to honor the memory of Karen Colclough.”
During her opening statement to jurors, Christina Louise Harris Schlecker, who served as Greggory Johnson’s defense lawyer, questioned the validity of Jacob Johnston’s testimony and maintained that he had a reason to lie. (C. Thomas Brown, who also is an Elkton-based lawyer, assisted Schlecker at times during the trial.)
“The story you are going to hear him tell is beyond belief,” Schlecker remarked, after describing Jacob Johnston as a “confessed killer” who made a “very self-serving statement to get a sweetheart deal.”
While cross-examining Jacob Johnston, Schlecker commented, “You were looking at a life sentence. Now, instead of dying in prison, you have a chance to get out.”
Jacob Johnston’s DNA was found at the murder scene, specifically on a cigarette butt and on a bleach bottle cap, according to trial testimony. Jacob Johnston testified that he poured bleach at the murder scene in an attempt to destroy evidence.
But Greggory Johnson’s DNA wasn’t found on any of the evidence collected at the crime scene, including the baseball bat marked by blood and hair, the fireplace shovel and a blanket that had been placed over a kitchen window in an apparent effort to block an outside view of Colclough’s body, according to expert testimony.
Jacob Johnston testified that, in addition to stealing jewelry, $1,000 and other items from his aunt, he drove away from the murder scene in her Cadillac and dropped off Greggory Johnson at an Elkton neighborhood.
He later drove that Cadillac to Philadelphia, where he bought heroin and then torched the car alongside a road in that city, abandoning it there, according to state testimony, which also indicated that investigators recovered the charred vehicle in a police impound lot.
Investigators found witnesses who could place Jacob Johnston in his aunt’s Cadillac after Oct. 18, 2018, the last time relatives and a friend had heard from her.
But prosecutors called no witnesses who saw Greggory Johnson in that Cadillac.
Maryland State Police detectives started their investigation at approximately 11:40 a.m. Oct. 21, 2018, after two family members and a decades-long close friend of Colclough discovered her body lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen.
The two family members and the longtime friend had gone to her home because no one had been able to reach Colclough by phone or by text for the past three days, ever since Oct. 18, and that was highly suspect.
Trial testimony from the two relatives indicated that Colclough had texted them on Oct. 18 to report that Jacob Johnston showed up at her home, that he did not look physically well, that he wanted money from her and that he wanted her to let him live there for a while.
Colclough, however, did not mention that Greggory Johnson or anyone else was with Jacob Johnston at her home, they testified.
In addition, when Colclough drove her nephew to a nearby store to buy him a sandwich – also documented in her text messages — she never mentioned seeing Greggory Johnson or anyone else in or around her house during those text conversations.
Jacob Johnston testified that Greggory Johnson had remained outside the home, on a patio area, until he and his aunt returned from the store and that’s when he joined them inside the residence.
Police arrested Greggory Johnson in February, after an autopsy revealed that the victim had been shot in the head and after informants — other than Jacob Johnston — implicated him in the murder, police reported.
Investigators arrested Jacob Johnston within a week after his aunt was murdered.