Coming to No Good End

Undertaker Jay Herman shot his lover, Edwina Prosen, to death in 1991. That's the only thing he and her family have agreed on since.

On this early Sunday morning in 1991, Sweeny's archangel of death wore no traditional black suit.

Undertaker Jay Herman Johnson was still in his pajamas, bathrobe and slippers, sitting on the rose granite bench of his son's tomb. As Johnson tended to do, he talked quietly to the 16-year-old son who had been encased in concrete for the past nine years.

That grave itself gave testimony to the tenacity of Johnson. When he claimed the body of his boy after the fatal car crash in 1982, he called in the backhoe and had the burial right there on the city easement in front of the funeral home. It didn't matter that officials in Sweeny's City Hall, 300 yards away, were appalled by the absence of permits or even applications. And nobody was willing to try to order the cantankerous Johnson to unearth the remains of this municipal wrong.

After three decades of dealing with the dead here and in Houston, Johnson answered to few higher authorities. Thousands of times in his career, the tall man with the cold stare drained the bodily fluids of the deceased. He bathed and beautified them and let them bask under the unique mortuary lighting that added to this illusion that they were alive, that they eluded the blackness brought on by death.

On this morning, nine years and one day after his son's death, Johnson again bid good-bye to his son then shuffled toward his residence in the back of the Sweeny Funeral Home. He carried the Sunday newspaper from the driveway, along with a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun with a hair trigger.

Johnson, 59, had grabbed the weapon and birdshot to scare away a neighborhood mongrel from his prized Akita dogs. He climbed the stairs to prepare coffee for Edwina Prosen, 57, his still-sleeping companion of ten years and the director of his funeral home.

Another service was scheduled for that afternoon. But in an instant, the routine would be broken with the roar of a shotgun blast in the tiny bedroom.

Johnson would tell and retell various versions of the shooting of Prosen. He said he took one step into the couple's bedroom and his left leg -- and perhaps his hand and trigger finger -- was seized by a sudden and painful cramp.

As he reached for his leg, the shotgun fell to the sheets and discharged, he told investigators. Johnson said he retrieved a body stretcher from his hearse and tried unsuccessfully to move Prosen down the steep plywood stairs.

He called police, sat on the bed and cried, he said.
"I loved that woman more than anything."
Prosen's mother, Mary Reuter, said the blast awoke her in her own bedroom. She went in and touched the cheek of her daughter, feeling the chill of her skin. Reuter said she stood there in shock, hearing nothing for several minutes.

She turned when she heard the footsteps of Johnson carrying the stretcher. Reuter looked at him and said, "You murdered my daughter."

The shooting started a long, bitter and bizarre legal war. Along the way, there would be allegations of theft, an arrest for corpse-stealing and a hostage standoff. The case would bring three sons back together, break Johnson and establish landmark criminal law in the state.

By the time the conclusion finally came earlier this year, no one could tell with certainty if it was the ultimate triumph, or travesty, of the justice system in Texas.

If death is an enigma, so was the man who had made his living from it.
Forty miles south of Houston, debates still flare occasionally in Sweeny cafes as the locals share the lore that has been built up about Johnson and, in some cases, by Johnson himself.

His military records indicate no more than a typical tour of duty in the Navy. The San Antonio native joined during the Korean War in the early 1950s and was discharged about two years later. But some law enforcement officers recall him talking of special covert missions as they waited with him for the drab work of escorting a funeral.

His Navy service did enable him to get a GED in California. However, he found work as a night operator at a Dow Chemical plant by boasting of a Northwestern University master's degree.

In a civil lawsuit in the 1980s, Johnson testified that he had Northwestern degrees in chemistry and bacteriology. Asked last year about his lie, Johnson said, "I guess now looking at it, I don't have any reason for having done it."

In his younger years, Johnson also worked as a truck driver. His keen awareness of his legal rights could be linked to his father, a former Bexar County state district judge. Johnson got his first exposure to the world of embalming when his father's friend, the owner of the Alamo Funeral Home, hired the youthful Johnson to help out.

His first full-time funeral-home job came in Freeport, when Johnson followed an ad in a trade publication to a job as an embalmer's assistant. "I went over there to make some money, and I thought that would be the business for me," he said in a later deposition.

Within ten years, Johnson held mortician's licenses in Texas and Louisiana, and a marriage license to his young love, Jackie, who helped him manage the funeral homes. When they broke up in 1970, the couple had a daughter and a son. They had adopted a boy soon after another infant child had died. He remarried in 1971 to a woman who now lives in Lufkin.

Johnson had a dark humor. His daughter recalled a car trip to Louisiana, when she talked of being uncomfortable driving across a long bridge. Why, Johnson told her, he could just throw her into the water -- and collect the insurance.

Sweeny Police Chief Jerry Murphy said Johnson established a reputation early as someone aloof from the local community and as a hard-nosed businessman. In the early 1970s a family called on him to bury their son, a Vietnam War casualty. Johnson did, but a dispute soon erupted over the price of funeral extras. He sued the family of the dead man and got nothing, except the animosity of many town residents.

But death became a growth business for Johnson.
By the late 1980s he had owned the Sweeny Funeral Home for two decades. And he bought the old Brazoria Methodist Church and turned it into a branch operation, the Brazoria Funeral Home. He had a tombstone business on Telephone Road in Houston and expanded with the opening of the Ad-Loff Funeral Home in Houston's Meyerland area. And he was setting up another mortuary in West Columbia.

Rather than tilling fertile new fields in the funeral business, however, Johnson would find he was digging himself into a financial and professional grave.

The funeral operator had perhaps his finest asset in the form of an outgoing associate and lover.

By all accounts, Edwina Prosen was a self-made woman when she started seeing Johnson socially 20 years ago.

Her father, a Swiss chef of some note, migrated to the New York City area and married her future mother, a first-generation American with Sicilian heritage. They provided Prosen with an upbringing accented by culture, fluency in French, a high school education and secretarial college.

She was a secretary in a New York City high-rise in the early 1950s when she met Sidney Prosen, a hard-charging record producer who worked in the same building. They married in May 1953 and started their suburban life in nearby Port of Chester.

Nine years and three boys later, the first harsh realities of life hit Prosen. The bottom fell out of a life for a woman not yet 30 years old. In mountains of legal documents compiled over the years, there is scant mention of separation or divorce -- she was forced to leave her husband "due to his refusal to support the family financially."

Edwina Prosen wasn't one to talk much about it. She and her children relocated to the two-bedroom upper unit of a modest duplex. Prosen worked as a secretary and teacher's assistant. Her boys hustled jobs and threw newspapers, helping in the family's survival.

"Everybody joined together," son Robert Prosen recalled. "You do what you have to do in those circumstances. You have to depend on each other. It brought us closer. We were so fortunate. We had a loving family."

Nostalgia aside, Prosen appeared to be a pioneering supermom. She played the piano until her youngest son fell asleep on her lap. She taught the older boys dances and devoted herself to the Boy Scouts. Prosen gained honors for her volunteer scouting work, while sons Philip and Robert both advanced to the rank of Eagle Scout.

The sons remember sharing evening meals; their mother insisted on it. But she took an active role in all their pursuits. Years later, when youngest son Jeff fired up his Harley hog, friends would see his motorcycle mama -- literally, his mother -- laughing in the wind as his passenger.

Philip enrolled in what was then East Texas State University, and he is now a photographer in Dallas. Robert shipped out to Texas Tech and went on to become a telephone company executive in the Dallas area. A close friend of Prosen's relocated from New York to a coastal enclave of Beaumont. To stay close to them all, Edwina Prosen came to Houston in 1975. She got jobs as an executive secretary at an oil company and as a hotel conference planner.

That's when Johnson entered her life.
"He convinced Mother that he was well-to-do and had multiple businesses, and then he convinced her to become part of them," Robert Prosen says. She was so taken with him and the industry that, at his urgings, she went through the required college courses to get her mortuary and funeral director licenses.

For a while Prosen and Johnson lived in his high-rise condo in the Sharpstown area. Then he introduced her to the new pleasures of pastoral semirural life in Sweeny, where BMWs and upscale developments were joining the traditional farms, ranches and refineries.

"When Edwina found out I had a place in the country, the [high-rise] became just a stopover on Friday, to go to Sweeny," Johnson said.

She fell in love with the peaceful little town where he had his funeral home. By all accounts, residents were similarly enamored of her. And this was a package deal for Johnson. Prosen's mother joined them there when her husband died. Youngest son Jeff lived with them as well.

"She loved the country, the wildlife and the lush green trees and nature there," Robert Prosen says. "Mother grew up in the big city and had lived there all her life. This was a wonderful dream. She felt like this was her place to stay. She felt like it was worth whatever she had to tolerate, at least initially."

By the late 1980s financial pressures heavily strained that relationship.
In April 1989 state regulators revoked Johnson's funeral home license and fined him $10,000 for violations. He had overcharged at his Houston funeral home and had operated multiple mortuaries without having licensed directors at each of them.

State enforcement closed the coffin on his Ad-Loff Funeral Home. An embittered Johnson blamed the revocation of his license on what he said was influence exerted by Service Corporation International, the funeral giant that bought the rival Levi Funeral Home.

His monument and tombstone company in Houston was destroyed by an arson fire in late 1989. The blaze occurred not long after Johnson requested the insurer to increase the dollar amount of his property coverage.

Asked in a deposition about accusations of arson, Johnson said, "There's been so many accusations against me that it's not even funny." Johnson himself was never a suspect, but the suspicious nature of the fire delayed the insurance settlement by several months. When it came, Johnson groused that it was inadequate to cover his costs.

Johnson pulled back his operations to the Sweeny Funeral Home. Financial institutions felt the effects from the fallout from the savings and loan collapses and the depressed oil economy. The FDIC seized the First Capital Bank in Angleton and wanted Johnson to make good on some $150,000 in overdue loans. By mid-1991 authorities threatened foreclosure of his West Columbia funeral home property.

Stripped of his operating license, Johnson could rely only on licensed director Edwina Prosen for his future. Though they were live-in companions, marriage had never been in the works. Sweeny Police Chief Jerry Murphy said that, in the early years of bliss for the couple, Johnson had told associates that he would never marry because Texas was a community property state that would require him to give her assets if they divorced.

However, Johnson maintained he was her common-law husband after the shooting, although Prosen had done nothing while they were together to give legal merit to that later claim. Her friends said that, as the relationship soured, she was thankful to have kept her independent status.

Fights between the couple escalated, some of them involving Jeff Prosen. In the relatively small living quarters behind the funeral home, Johnson and the son clashed regularly. Jeff argued with him over his treatment of Edwina, and Johnson criticized the loose lifestyle of her son.

"Wherever Edwina went, Jeff went," Johnson told attorneys later. "Jeff was bad news."

With Edwina's mother and her son living there, Johnson said, "The only place we could talk was in the bedroom at night, kind of what you'd call pillow talk.... She kept asking me to give him another chance."

Jeff Prosen married in August 1991, but Johnson said that only added one more person to the complicated arrangement. "He never really left. He was always showing up for meals, him and his wife."

On the eve of Jeff's wedding, Johnson said he and Prosen's son Robert had a "family-style disagreement." He said he told Robert that "Jeff wasn't worth the powder to blow him to hell and back."

In another eerie indication of the growing feud, Johnson began using an elaborate telephone tape-recording system. Some of those tapes revealed Johnson yelling and screaming at Edwina, although Johnson's friends said he referred to her as his "baby."

Jeff Prosen, who shopped with his mother the day before the shooting, said she planned to leave Johnson as soon as she finished taking care of a few business matters. One of them was reportedly to substitute her sons in place of Johnson as her life insurance beneficiary.

Johnson and his mate both had extensive life coverage, more than $300,000 worth. The last policy, offered as part of his National Rifle Association membership, had been taken out at his insistence only four months earlier. At that same time, he checked with another insurance carrier about getting $1-million whole life policies on each of them. The agent said she felt uncomfortable and never called Johnson back with detailed information.

With their double indemnity clauses on existing policies, payouts would be at least $675,000 in the event of accidental death. They kept their payments current, and Johnson, 11 days before the shooting, checked to make sure that another policy would pay off Edwina Prosen's Cadillac if she died.

Attorneys for Johnson later waved aside sinister notions about the extensive coverage, saying it was prudent business practice to fully insure a financial partner to guard against unforeseeable calamities.

But nobody in the Sweeny Funeral Home would seem to fear the prospects of death by intruder. Johnson had formidable security in the form of three Doberman pinschers and a Rottweiler. Under their bed was a handmade rolling platform covered with shotguns. There were handguns in each nightstand drawer. More shotguns sat in the closet and downstairs in the body preparation room. And another shotgun rested on a rack in the embalming room.

Despite that armament, Edwina Prosen got more insurance a month before she died. She bought a pistol of her own. Robert Prosen said she feared that Johnson would kill her or her son Jeff.

While the confrontations flared in the upstairs rear of the funeral home, unsuspecting clients came to the chapel to pay their last respects. Somber services sent the newly departed on their way. And, Prosen's sons said, their mother herself made plans to move on into another life.

His actions soon after Edwina Prosen's death raised strong questions about who -- or rather, what -- was the real love in Johnson's life.

Yes, he followed in his hearse as the ambulance drove Prosen to the hospital. Johnson waited until she was formally pronounced dead.

And no, authorities told him, they would not release the remains to him. The sons, her next of kin, would not allow it. Instead, an independent transport service moved the body to the Harris County morgue for evidentiary examination and possible autopsy.

Johnson would travel there later that day, but he had another stop first: at the Lake Jackson office of his financial adviser. Johnson said he went there only to confide in the now-deceased adviser, who was his friend. However, the man told investigators, Johnson pressed him for details about the impact of the shooting on lender negotiations to stall the foreclosure of his West Columbia funeral home.

When he called to tell the funeral home he was heading to Houston, Johnson got a surprise.

"Lo and behold, Mr. Jeff answered the phone, which he had no right to do," Johnson testified later. "He didn't have any right to be on the property." Johnson drove the hearse to his home and was upset to find "it was crawling with police." It was still filled with police later that night.

Then-sergeant Charles Davis of the Sweeny Police Department "was jumping up and down like a flea on a skillet," said Johnson, who told officers they were violating his rights.

The next morning, Johnson awoke early and got down to more important matters, at least for him. An officer with the First State Bank of Brazoria said that Johnson was already waiting at the door when he arrived for work. Johnson informed him that there had been accidental life coverage on Edwina Prosen's purchase of her Cadillac. She had died. He was the beneficiary. And he wanted the title.

Loan officer Debbie Mallard told him it would take a few days to process the claim.

Johnson went by the Sweeny Police Department to protest to Chief Murphy about the police investigation. He never mentioned Edwina Prosen or remorse. He said only that he had valuable documents -- the insurance papers -- missing from his home.

Then he headed to Houston in his hearse. He testified later that he and Prosen had a postdeath pact: If anything happened to either of them, the other would handle the personal tasks of embalming and preparing the body.

Jeff Prosen said it was the opposite. His mother had told him that if anything happened to her the family should block Johnson from touching her body or possibly destroying evidence.

Johnson ignored an order from the justice of the peace. As a mortuary insider, he pulled into the body storage area and loaded up Edwina Prosen's remains.

He turned the hearse south toward Sweeny, to their home.
As sunset neared, Brazoria County Deputy Frank Cisneros heard his patrol radio crackle with an unusual dispatch: All units were to be on the lookout for a vehicle believed to be transporting stolen property.

The vehicle was a black Cadillac hearse. The purloined property was a day-and-a-half-old corpse. And the suspect was Johnson.

Cisneros, patrolling along Business 288 near Angleton, pulled him over. He said that with the dim light and tinted windows it was difficult to see if there was a body inside. He called for a supervisor, who arrived, made a cell phone call and ordered Johnson arrested. They impounded the hearse after taking the body to an Angleton funeral home.

In a search of the vehicle, deputies found copies of six-figure insurance policies, other financial documents and a note scrawled by Johnson on subjects to raise to his financial adviser. And they found the body bag with Prosen's remains.

Police jailed him on what would soon be a charge of murder.
In the next few days, Prosen family members provided more fodder for investigators. In clearing out the belongings of their mother and grandmother, they found altered IDs, more insurance policies and documents containing false social security numbers and names.

An attorney for Johnson complained loudly about the family's removing Johnson's items from the residential portion of the funeral home. He filed a theft complaint with police. Sweeny Chief Jerry Murphy said the family offered to return the disputed belongings to Johnson until ownership could be determined. But Johnson refused, so the Prosens turned them over to police -- boxes and boxes of items, including some of the policies and other questionable documents.

A grand jury declined to indict the family for theft. But the police had more circumstantial evidence in their arsenal against the funeral home operator. In early November grand jurors indicted Johnson for capital murder.

He was set for trial the following June. On April 14, 1992 -- ten days before a scheduled pretrial hearing -- the telephone rang in the Brazoria County District Attorney's Office.

A lawyer for Johnson said there had been a slight complication. Johnson had been deemed incapacitated. He was now a ward of Harris County probate court. The application mentioned no capital murder charge, only that various lawsuits were pending against him.

William Mark Valverde, a physician at West Oaks Hospital, advised the probate judge in March 1992 that Johnson had been his patient since December. His diagnosis: "major depression/single episode and paranoid personality disorder."

Johnson, the doctor said, was having difficulty making reasonable and rational decisions regarding his health and the management of his property and estate. No one disputed that he was competent to be tried, although he was taking drugs for a variety of medical problems, including chronic back pain.

Johnson's son, Katy resident James Johnson, became guardian. Prosecutors showed their surprise in a hastily hand-written note on yellow legal paper, asking for a delay until they could determine the medical condition's effects on the capital murder trial.

That trial postponement came, but for vastly different reasons.
Johnson's first two attorneys met him in jail and agreed to represent him for $50,000. He signed the deed to the Sweeny Funeral Home over to them, and they later took some of his prized firearms they said were needed to cover the rest of the bill. After a bond reduction hearing, they parted ways. A third attorney came in for a bond hearing and was then dismissed by the defendant.

That's when then-state district judge Ogden Bass tapped a 22-year attorney, Lloyd Stansberry, as court-appointed counsel. Stansberry immediately attacked the foundation of the state's case: insurance policies.

In five different motions, the defense argued that by law the judge had to throw out the insurance documents and most of the rest of the evidence seized by police and the Prosen family.

Relatives of the dead woman had no right to rummage through Johnson's belongings, Stansberry said. And there was no probable cause for stopping the hearse on suspicion of transporting a stolen body. Hearses are supposed to carry bodies -- how would authorities have reason to think one was stolen?

Investigators gained formal search warrants as the criminal probe developed, but the defense argued that it was too late.

A fundamental aspect of Texas law bans so-called "fruits of the poisonous tree." If individual rights are violated in getting evidence -- or even in getting information about the location of evidence -- then prosecutors cannot use that material or anything else later collected because of it.

That law was well established for law enforcement officers, who are supposedly trained and aware of search legalities. Far less clear was whether it necessarily applies to the good intentions of civilians such as the Prosens.

Brazoria County prosecutor Dale Summa argued that, regardless of the family's actions, investigators would have easily uncovered the existence of the insurance policies.

But the defense maintained that the ban should be interpreted as total. Otherwise, police could circumvent the intent merely by having civilians collect evidence that was off-limits to law enforcement.

In the end, Bass barred almost every insurance-related piece of evidence. The state appealed, clearing the way for Johnson's release from jail under rules guaranteeing him a speedy trial.

"I didn't know where to land," Johnson said. "At that time I didn't have any idea who would help me or anything else. It was like the whole world was against me."

Johnson, still a ward of probate court, moved into a small apartment complex near Houston's museum district. As the months turned into years, the annual report by his guardian gave an almost idyllic description of life: He took walks, rode his bicycle, availed himself of museum exhibits and tours, and read in the local library.

Yes, his guardian son said in probate court documents, his father was "content with his living situation." But under the mental health category of the reports, the box with the check mark always read, "remained about the same."

In March 1995 Houston's First Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge's evidence ruling in a 2-1 vote. The D.A. pushed higher, challenging that finding before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Meanwhile, the Prosens began fearing the worst. They consulted with veteran criminal specialist Mike Hinton of Houston about taking over as special prosecutor, but Brazoria County continued with the case.

In November 1996 the state's highest criminal court affirmed the evidence ban in a 5-4 decision.

The general election that year replaced the remaining moderates with conservative Republicans. Prosecutors decided to seek a rehearing when the hard-line court would be in place the following January. But party affiliations or perspectives mattered not -- the new group of justices upheld the decision by the same 5-4 margin.

Jeff Prosen told reporters of his total disgust for the judicial system. "He murdered my mother for money. I want him to know he's not going to get the last laugh out of this."

In a twist of fate, Prosen would soon be delivering that message face-to-face with Johnson.

David Burke, police chief of the sprawling Veterans Affairs medical complex in Houston, knew nothing of Johnson or Jeff Prosen or the murder case.

On the morning of April 21, 1997, Burke knew only that he had a problem -- a big one.

Strolling across a large parking and transit area of the VA grounds, Burke heard shouts and noticed a commotion. He saw a younger man with a handgun pointed at the back of the balding head of an older man.

Prosen would later explain that he went to the VA pharmacy minutes earlier to pick up some medication. As he waited, he saw the man accused of murdering his mother also waiting to have a prescription filled.

"He explained to me later he can't stand even being around Johnson, so he was going to do the right thing -- he was going to leave," Burke said. Prosen turned and began walking away, but "something made him just stop and turn around -- like a sixth sense," Burke said.

Johnson said he did nothing to provoke his assailant. Prosen swears he pivoted in time to see Johnson stare at him then flash a grin and a wink. "That's when Jeff lost control of himself," Burke said. Witnesses told of Prosen, an ex-Marine, dashing to his vehicle, pulling out a Glock semiautomatic pistol, slamming in an ammunition clip and chambering a round. He tucked the weapon into his belt under his jacket and ran back toward the pharmacy.

He found Johnson outside, waiting near a bus stop. Prosen pulled the pistol and forced Johnson into the kneeling position as if he were going to execute him.

While police were summoned, Burke approached the gunman and began trying to build trust. The chief acted like he could not hear Prosen's demands so that he could gradually draw closer to him and get him to talk rather than rant.

"I was trying to buy some time," Burke recalled. Foremost, he wanted the crowded area cleared of bystanders. That proved difficult -- many of the surrounding VA patients were in wheelchairs or on crutches.

"Prosen was trying to explain the situation to me, but he was babbling. He wasn't making a lot of sense initially." The gunman shouted at Johnson to apologize, to say he was sorry for what he had done to Edwina Prosen. Occasionally he waved the pistol in the direction of the chief to try to explain his actions.

With one hand still gripping the weapon, Prosen used his other to wrestle his wallet from a back pocket. In it was an old newspaper clipping that was carefully transferred to the police chief.

Burke unfolded the newsprint and began to grasp the situation. The chief feigned sympathy for Prosen, who was relaying his frustrations over the inaction of the case.

Prosen wanted Johnson arrested. Burke took stock of the situation and pulled out his cuffs and snapped them onto the hostage. "I did that for two reasons: One was to appease Jeff; the other was that I was afraid Mr. Johnson was going to try to do something that would have tragic consequences."

Prosen blamed himself for the death of his mother. She had confided in him about her fear of Johnson, but he allowed her to return to Johnson. And then there was the matter of the botched effort to help police by taking the evidence of the insurance policies.

Prosen spoke of wanting justice with Johnson. "I was able to convince Jeff that I was on his side and wanted to see justice done to Johnson, but that what he was doing here was not justice."

"The deciding factor was telling him that the VA was a sanctuary for veterans like himself," Burke said. Prosen looked around for the first time. He saw veterans in their wheelchairs and staring from bus windows, as well as the police peeking out from behind autos and other secure points.

Their conversation turned to terms of a deal. Burke vowed to call prosecutors and to "do all in [his] power" to see that the murder case moved forward. He told the gunman he could call the news media from his office to try to generate support for his quest. When Prosen spoke of fears that he would be led into a trap and "jumped" by officers on the way to the office, Burke told him a path would be cleared and his safety would be assured.

In return, Prosen would have to give up his weapon. They made their pact. Prosen made his call to KTRK-Channel 13. "He held up his end of the bargain," Burke said. "He surrendered."

The dark stain on Johnson's pants showed he had urinated on himself when taken hostage. He was obviously shaken, but he stayed silent. He admitted nothing; he apologized for nothing.

Police charged Prosen with aggravated assault, a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison. In August 1997 he pleaded guilty in return for five years' probation and 240 hours of community service. At the sentencing, the judge ordered Prosen not to come into contact with Johnson again. He was ordered to undergo anger management counseling.

The case led to one more appearance for Prosen: a guest spot on The Maury Povich Show, to tell about his rage.

When Judge Ogden Bass finally gaveled the Johnson murder trial to order in December 1997, jurors had more than sterile exhibits and diagrams to examine.

They had the couple's bedroom itself.
Defense attorney Stansberry knew he had strong evidence from Lannie Emanuel, a Dallas County crime-lab expert who usually testified for the state in murder cases. And a clerk's office adjacent to the courtroom was empty, part of a project to add a court to the Brazoria County Courthouse in Angleton.

"We had all the bedroom furniture, the original bed and bedding seized from the crime scene," Stansberry said. "So we thought, 'Why not set up a full mock-up?' "

As important was what the state did not have: most of the excluded evidence of the main life insurance policies and Johnson's interest in them even before Prosen's body was put to rest. Based on what was presented to jurors, it sounded like the state was trying to show the defendant designed a grand scheme only for the insurance that would have given him title to the dead woman's Cadillac.

Stansberry was surprised that the state still pushed forward with the capital murder case. The attorney said he was mystified that the state did not focus instead on a conviction for the lesser felony offense of manslaughter, which would require no proof of money as a motive or even that Johnson planned in advance to kill her.

"We did the best we could with the hand that was dealt us," said prosecutor Dale Summa.

"A manslaughter conviction, which carried a maximum sentence of 20 years, would have been tantamount to a life sentence for him," Stansberry said. While arguing his innocence, the defense gave jurors an out of convicting him of misdemeanor negligent homicide. That verdict would mean he was grossly careless but that the death was still the result of an unintentional act.

Summa pressed for openings, but there were few. Bass rejected a prosecution request to allow the testimony of an ex-soldier associate of Johnson's, who wanted to give an account about Johnson executing two Korean prisoners of war.

Similarly, the court refused to have other witnesses ready to tell about Johnson's mysterious and morbid stories from years earlier. "They wanted to bring in all this evidence that he knew how to kill people with cyanide pellets in car exhaust systems and so on," Stansberry said. "It didn't make sense to the jury that somebody with as much experience as Johnson supposedly had with weaponry would give a target a chance for survival."

Johnson later explained his reasoning in using the lightweight birdshot ammunition in his hunt for the mongrel mutt on the morning of the shooting. "I didn't want to kill the dog."

Summa brought up inconsistencies in the defense. Johnson had his arsenal, including shotguns he kept downstairs. With his extensive firearms training and use, why would he even be in their bedroom with his finger on the trigger of a loaded shotgun with the safety off?

The victim's sons tearfully recalled the fear for their mother in the months and days before she was killed. But Stansberry countered that she was a strong, independent woman who would have left Johnson had she been in a potentially lethal situation.

Near the end of the trial, jurors stepped into the mock-up bedroom. In the bed was a mannequin with an abdomen marked with the entry points for each shotgun pellet that traveled into her heart. Emanuel took the bloodied sheets marked with gunpowder burns. He carefully lined the holes up with each point on the abdomen, demonstrating that the shooting could have occurred as Johnson described it.

After final arguments, jurors had a request. They wanted the shotgun. And they wanted to be left alone in the mock-up room. Not long after they returned, the panel convicted Johnson of negligent homicide.

It was a victory for the defense. Johnson had already served more than the maximum one-year punishment for that crime. He was free.

Jeff Prosen's permanent glare during the trial became even more intense. He and brother Robert comforted their other brother, Philip, who sobbed after the verdict.

Stansberry said Johnson often cried in private when talking of Edwina Prosen. The attorney and his law partner turned to share their postverdict euphoria with Johnson. What they saw was the same flat stare that had covered their client during the lengthy proceedings.

"Hey," they told him, "You know, you won!"
Johnson's only reply: "I know."
The defendant and James Johnson, his son and guardian, were escorted from the courthouse by deputies. But the matter would not yet be put to rest until the Prosen brothers decided to end their efforts.

As the O.J. Simpson murder case illustrated, the civil justice system awaits those frustrated by the outcome of criminal cases. And the burden of proof and less stringent rules of evidence make such lawsuits inviting.

The Prosens sued Johnson to stop him from getting the insurance proceeds and to try to force him to pay punitive damages for the alleged wrongful death of their mother.

Earlier this year, that case came to trial in Houston, and so did all the facts about the insurance policies and Johnson's eagerness to cash in on them. And the Prosen family, represented by attorneys Perry Zivley and Dean Barth, had assembled the kinds of experts who sharply challenged the earlier forensic findings on the accident.

"We knew it was going to be a completely different trial," Zivley said. "The suppression of the evidence in the criminal trial just flat-out didn't apply in the civil case.

"There was nothing about it that sounded credible," Zivley said. "His whole story is unbelievable -- everything he did up to and after the shooting."

Johnson testified for two days. His videotaped deposition was played for jurors.

"In my opinion, there could have been no other witness in our case but Johnson, and they would have found that he intentionally did the killing," Zivley said. "It was not just what he said, but his demeanor." In extensive questioning about his causing the death of the "love of his life," he never cried, Zivley said.

"Think about it. If you caused an accident like that, you'd want to crawl inside a hole and never come out again," Zivley said. "He was cold, hard. He was his own worst witness."

Attorney Barth said the impact on the jury was noticeable. "His attitude was it was almost that 'it wasn't that I didn't like her -- it was just business, only business.'

"The jury was on our side after that," Barth said. "I think they had no choice but to settle at that point."

Johnson received $10,000 -- fees for his attorneys -- and gave up all rights to the insurance payoff, which had climbed to $900,000 with the interest since 1991.

The Prosens agreed to drop their wrongful death suit. It could have resulted in millions of dollars in damages against him, although it is doubtful that Johnson would ever have the assets to pay any of it. As Barth points out, it was worth something to Johnson to get the dismissal because he could have been hounded for the rest of his life with depositions and other legal actions in the collection effort.

Barth recalled his first meeting with client Robert Prosen, who described Johnson's lack of feeling. "I didn't believe Bob. I didn't believe such a person [as Johnson] could exist," Barth said. "I do now."

Johnson, to the surprise of no one in the case, reacted without emotion to the settlement.

In January Johnson left his small island of the past several years, the apartment near Hermann Park and the museums and the library and the tree-lined streets where he bicycled.

Johnson, who declined a request through his probate attorney for an interview, is reported to have moved in with his son, James, in the Katy area.

Jeff Prosen closed his motorcycle shop on the North Loop. He relocated to San Antonio and is a construction worker who continues to serve out the terms of his probation for taking Johnson hostage.

Back in Sweeny, Chief Murphy makes rounds that take him almost daily past a sight that would be easily overlooked by others. Thick tangles of vines and brush have pushed upward from the earth in a vain attempt cover the sign: Sweeny Funeral Home.

"It is hard to put this case aside when you have to drive by that eyesore on a frequent basis and see what's left of the place," Murphy said. "In all the time it took to bring this to a conclusion, you can say I lost more than a little faith in the system."

He shook his head and scooped up another helping of Redman chewing tobacco. "All the twists and turns and rabbit trails. And the end didn't really prove -- or disprove -- that a murder occurred in that place."

No more answers are to be found at
this funeral home. Wind whips through shattered windows, banging kitchen cabinet doors and yanking away tar-paper roofing. Bright red spray paint, the work of vandals, warns visitors, "I am alone -- Leave!"

In the back, a battered hearse sinks deeper into the soggy soil, weary from an effort to flee the rising weeds.

Only at the end of the drive does the desolation disappear. A small section of the city right-of-way is neatly mowed. Despite the sunshine, the rose granite bench there is cool to the touch. Empty and isolated, it exposes its etched message:

"The past is gone.
The present is lost as it arrives.
There is only tomorrow
And tomorrow waits for no one.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Houston Concert Tickets

Around The Web

Loading...