EL PASO COUNTY, CO — Joshua Johnson has been found guilty of murdering Riley Whitelaw in 2022 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Closing arguments, sentencing, and victim impact statements were all heard in court on Wednesday.
Joshua Johnson answered Judge Eric Bentley on his intention to not testify on his own behalf. The jury entered the filled courtroom just after 9 a.m. Judge Bentley went ahead and instructed the jury they would be hearing the defense's case as the prosecution rested yesterday.
The defense's first witness called to the stand was Corporal Taylor, whose name and rank were Detective Perry at the time of Riley's killing. Corporal Taylor was one of the first witnesses brought forward to the stand by the prosecution.
The defense provided a report from the night of Riley's murder between Corporal Taylor and Crystal Ishmael. The defense focused on Ishmael's account of the night, the defense pointed out that in Taylor's report, Ishmael said she had cracked a door, saw the bleach, and then proceeded to head to the dumpster corral where she reported more bleach and the unidentifiable person. That is all the questions the defense had for this witness.
In the redirect, the prosecution wanted to know the condition of Ishmael when she gave this report. Corporal Taylor said she was hysterical and there was a lot of multi-tasking happening by everyone at the scene. That is all the prosecution had for their redirect.
The next witness called to the stand was Blaine Withers. Withers was the store manager of a different Walgreens within the city at the time of Riley's killing. Withers got involved when other higher-ups required specific keys and access to the Walgreens building.
The defense asked about how Withers spoke with lead Detective Mike Lee about specific employee complaints and employee files. Withers said due to the fact that he was not the manager of the store, he had no access to employee files or formal complaints. This ended the defense's line of questioning for the witness and the prosecution declined to cross-examine the witness.
Following a question about an inventory tracking device, Withers was dismissed from the case as a witness. The defense followed by calling Detective Mike Lee to the stand.
The defense asked Detective Lee about the discussion of formal complaints from Withers regarding Joshua Johnson. Detective Lee said it was not Withers's responsibility to come up with those complaints. The defense counsel focused on whether there was any formal written documentation of complaints against Joshua Johnson, Detective Lee said none were ever provided. The defense finished their questioning.
The prosecution in cross-examination went ahead and asked more about who would go ahead and provide these documents, to which Detective Lee said it would come from the Regional District Manager of the Walgreens store. This ended the prosecution's cross-examination of Detective Lee.
Following a bench conference, the juror questions could not be asked.
The defense then called Patrick Gurney, an investigator with the public defender's office. His role as an investigator is taking subpoenas and processing scenes. The defense asked if Mr. Gurney had taken photos from where Johnson dropped his vehicle along I-25 near mile marker 42. The photos of this scene were entered as evidence.
One of the photos first showed was a picture from the railroad tracks looking at the highway picturing a barbed wire fence. The next photo was an underpass under the railroad tracks where Johnson's car was found with a barbed wire fence along the area. The final photo shown was the surrounding area of where Johnson's vehicle was found depicting the access route Johnson may have taken to dump the vehicle. The defense asked if you take the direct route you would have to go through the barbed wire.
The prosecution went ahead and asked if the car had any evidence of being wrapped in barbed wire, Mr. Gurney said not to my knowledge. The prosecution also followed by asking if you could walk the road back to I-25 and Mr. Gurney said someone could easily do that. This ended the prosecution's cross-examination.
The defense's rebuttal was one question, asking Mr. Gurney if there were any light sources out near the train tracks. Mr. Gurney said there were none and the defense rested its case. Following this, the jury questions were read to the courtroom before closing arguments were set to begin.
The defense theory read to the jury by Judge Bentley, states that Johnson did not cause the death of Riley Whitelaw. Johnson says he was in the restroom when he heard screams, ran to the break room where he saw the assailant was attacked, and went ahead and ran from the scene.
Closing arguments began with the Prosecuting Attorney Tony Gioia putting an image of Riley up on the courtroom screen, saying this case is about Riley Whitelaw. Gioia said that the evidence shows that Riley was murdered by the defendant. The prosecution walked through the definition of murder in the first degree, the prosecution says that the intent to kill Riley was clear when it came to the defendant's intentions.
The prosecution said the testimony heard about Johnson's interactions with the surveillance system showed that Johnson knew what the camera could and could not see. The testimony from Bev Crider shows the intent of the defendant to meet Riley on her break, telling Crider she must relieve Riley at 5:30 p.m.
Further evidence provided by the prosecution is the act of placing card stock over the break room window. On top of this, the prosecution said the defendant knowingly stacked crates in front of a camera that would show his escape.
Gioia then showed an image of Johnson, telling the jury they had heard a bunch of different stories about what had happened in the break room where Riley was killed. But to run from the crime scene and drive 100 miles south was because the defendant knew what he had just done.
Gioia then provided a timeline outlining the day of Riley's killing. The prosecution focused on the video of Johnson stacking telling the jury they heard testimony as to why anyone would stack crates that high when all other employees said it was odd.
The next piece of evidence shown in Gioia's timeline was Johnson entering the office and locker area, where Gioia says Johnson grabbed the Gerber multi-tool that would eventually kill Riley. This was followed by a clip showing Johnson following Riley towards the break room.
The clip was then shown showing Alicia Schwenke reacting exactly at the time of Riley's killing where Schwenke testified she heard a scream. Followed by the clip of the crates stacked at 5:39 p.m. where crates can be seen shaking as Gioia says the defendant passes them heading out to clean off his clothes and body by the dumpster corral.
When it comes to the motive of the defendant, Gioia said there is a clear one in this case. He told the jury that they heard testimony about Johnson's advances towards Riley, comments he made to her about how she like to be choked, and his motive was her rejection.
Gioia told the jury that the only verdict in this case should be guilty.
The defense opened with a statement saying that Johnson did not kill Riley. He was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. O'Riley continued to stress the fact that none of us would know how we would react to seeing something like that, and while Johnson's behavior was weird it could be explained by the traumatic reaction.
The defense pointed out that while Johnson had made comments that made Riley feel uncomfortable, O'Riley pointed out that Johnson was entertaining a relationship with Crystal Ishmael.
The defense went ahead and said that the lack of formal complaints showed the jury that Johnson was not a dangerous individual. The defense said that law enforcement in this case painted him as the suspect and that confirmation bias on behalf of the investigators was a major cause in this case. The defense finished their closing arguments following this.
In his rebuttal, Assistant District Attorney Brent Nelson stated this is not a case about a quick suspect. Nelson stated that Johnson wanted to make Riley feel something, especially after she declined his advances.
Nelson said while it is not the defense's burden to disprove the motive, Nelson said, "the motive identifies who [Johnson] is a person". Nelson stressed that the jury must consider all the testimony heard about Johnson's interactions that made Whitelaw uncomfortable.
Nelson said there is plenty of reflection and judgment in this case, outlying his deliberate actions of purchasing UV flashlights, directing Bev Crider to send Riley on break at 5:30 p.m., not parking in his usual parking space, and then the act of killing Riley herself. Nelson said "the defendant acted 42 times" knowing what he was doing.
Nelson pivoted back to stacking the crates telling the jury, that every employee and manager said there was no reason for an employee to stack them that high, let alone in front of a surveillance camera.
Nelson says that the defendant's account is implausible, stating "the stars would have needed to align" for the back roll-up door to have been left open, the mysterious attacker would have needed access to all the codes and doors, access to Riley, Jacob Leacock, and Johnson's locker codes to plant the evidence of social security numbers and phone numbers. Nelson implored the jury, that it does not make sense for someone to act logically, and asked the jury to judge this case with logic.
Nelson ended his rebuttal by asking the jury to find the defendant guilty. The jury entered deliberation around 12:45 p.m. Wednesday afternoon.
Following the dismissal for deliberation, the courtroom gathered at 1:56 p.m. The jury had reached a verdict according to the jury foreman.
In the case of The People vs. Joshua Johnson, Johnson was found guilty of one count of murder in the first degree.
Following the reading of the verdict the prosecution went ahead and motioned for immediate sentencing to come at 2:30 p.m.
Before sentencing was handed down nine people spoke during impact statements in the courtroom. The first to speak was Riley Whitelaw's boyfriend at the time.
"There are no words for how much I hate you. You have taken so much from so many people... Riley was going to do so many things," said Jacob Leacock.
Riley's closest cousin came forward, stating that the family would be creating an art piece in her honor. After talking to Riley's energy, happiness, and empathy he proceeded to fill a vase full of purple colored stones, taking his time to have all 42 stones representing the 42 stab wounds that took Riley's life.
"No words here today will be terrible enough I am sure, you have handed out a life sentence to us all... if you are scared for what's next, you should be, for there is a much harsher sentence for you in this world and the next," said Cheyenne Quinn.
The next person was Riley's former nanny, visibly emotional, she said "Grief is when one's heart explodes and suffocates at the same time", she continued to give thanks to all those who fought for justice for Riley.
The next witness was the mother of Riley's best friend, talking about the hole Riley left at her school, marching band, and continuing on to talk about what Riley should be doing. Riley should be considering college and academics she said.
Riley's aunt, Kelly Whitelaw said in part, "You are a monster, I cannot even speak your name.... If I could swear at you I would, but out of respect for the court, our family, Riley, I will not, but I have no respect for you. I hope that you suffer... You are a disgusting person of a human being, actually you are not a human being, you are a monster".
Riley's grandparents were the next to provide their statements, Riley's grandfather talked about a trip Riley had taken just a few weeks before her death on a college tour, "all of these things that we did, are now things that we will never be able to do again", said Riley's grandfather in part.
The next impact statement came from Riley's mother, Courtenay Whitelaw. She said the lack of filing deadlines, not knowing the day Riley died, and the lack of repercussions from the court are disrespectful.
Courtenay moved on to address "the monster" not using Johnson's name. Courtenay said "While your parents may have been responsible for making you the way you are, you alone are responsible for your actions... she was right you are a pedophile, she tried to show you kindness even when you made her uncomfortable... I hate the fact that she took all the right steps... we will see to it that she is remembered for what she is, not what you did".
Courtenay went on to say "We should all act like Riley, showing kindness to anyone and everyone".
Courtenay gave thanks to all the departments of law enforcement involved in this case, Judge Bentley, and the jury.
"I hope that people will recognize from this that no means no, and when you have a child working for you, that child's safety comes before anything else," said Whitelaw in part.
Following the victim impact statements, Tony Gioia addressed Judge Bentley saying he does not enjoy these cases, Gioia asked for the court to hand down life in prison without parole. The defense plans to file an appeal but asked the court to sentence according to the statute.
Judge Bentley addressed the courtroom, saying "there is no surprise as to what the sentence will be in this case", before the sentencing of life in prison without parole, Judge Bentley thanked those who have been here for the entire trial, "I am awestruck by your dedication, Mrs. Whitelaw, I am in aw of your courage here, you have suffered something no parent should have... you have shown everything from a mother a child could ask for" said Judge Bentley.
Judge Bentley said that he hopes the handing down of this sentencing, begins to fill the rift in the family, community, and all those affected by the ruthless act of violence. Judge Bentley hopes that the feelings of hate are felt, but hopes that those feelings dissipate and hopes that hate will be replaced with efforts to keep Riley's light and kindness alive.
Judge Bentley then followed this by addressing Johnson, walking through Johnson's crime, saying his fabricated story proved his guilt. Judge Bentley told Johnson he cut himself off from humanity, Judge Bentley handed down Joshua Johnson a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In a press conference held by the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office members of the DA's office spoke following the sentencing of Joshua Johnson. District Attorney Michael Allen began the presser by speaking about the dedicated work of his staff, the Colorado Springs Police Department, and all other agencies involved in this case.
The next person to speak was Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez. Vasquez took moments to share thanks to the family of Riley Whitelaw for their patience and trust in seeking justice for Riley.
Vasquez said that Riley cannot be brought back by this sentencing but it is no doubt that Riley's law will continue to protect minors throughout the criminal justice system.
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