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Opening statements heard in the trial of Joshua Johnson alleged killer of Riley Whitelaw

Posted at 5:59 PM, Sep 26, 2023

EL PASO COUNTY, CO — A jury was selected on Tuesday to serve on the jury in the murder trial of Joshua Johnson, the man accused of murdering his co-worker Riley Whitelaw in 2022.

During a preliminary hearing back in November, the 28-year-old pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder in connection to Riley's death.

Judge Eric Bentley said that trial will begin Wednesday. We are expected to hear opening statements from the defense and prosecution beginning at 9:00 a.m.

News5 will continue to follow the trail daily bringing you updated and daily coverage of courtroom procedures and testimony here.

Opening Statements

The jury entered a busy courtroom just after 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday. Jurors were seated and Judge Eric Bentley presented the jurors with a set of rules to ensure a fair trial.

Opening statements began around 9:30 a.m. with Senior Deputy District Attorney Tony Gioia leading the prosecution.

He began his statements by talking about Riley and her plans to graduate high school, her employment, and her role at Walgreens. He went on to say that the prosecution would show the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant Joshua Johnson was guilty of murdering Riley Whitelaw.

The prosecution then went on to discuss the roles of Riley and Johnson while they worked at Walgreens together. According to the prosecution, Johnson had more responsibilities and access to areas of the store than a traditional retail employee.

The prosecution walked the jury through the events of the night Riley was killed. He told the jury both Riley and Johnson went missing following Riley's break, and the managers of the store began to search for the two after they did not return from break.

According to the prosecution, a manager returned to the store after not hearing from Riley or Johnson. One of the managers saw someone in the dumpster area of the store. That person told the manager they were just changing. The manager did not recognize the individual at the time but noted the overwhelming smell of bleach coming from the area.

When the manager found Riley's body in the break room of Walgreens, she was already dead. An autopsy would later reveal that Riley suffered from 42 different stab wounds showing signs of a defensive struggle, according to the prosecution.

The prosecution continued to delve into who law enforcement thought could have possibly been in the store during the time of the killing. The prosecution laid out the layout of the store and what cameras could see and what cameras could not see.

"Perhaps what is noticeable, or what is not noticeable is that lack of the defendant's car not being seen on camera..." said the prosecution. Noting that Johnson can be seen entering from what they described as an unusual way of entering.

The prosecution went on to explain what was seen on surveillance in the moments before Riley's death. Riley was seen checking out for a break on her terminal and then making her way to the break room.

Just minutes later, the prosecution says that Johnson can be seen on surveillance video following Riley into the break room.

This is the last time Riley would be seen alive.

The prosecution said Johnson could be seen shortly after stacking red crates, "intentionally and deliberately" attempting to hide what had just transpired. Another action showing deliberate intention from Johnson comes when he hung a bathroom out of order sign and taped a piece of cardstock over the break room window hiding the killing.

When it comes to the motive of Joshua Johnson, the prosecution laid that, according to them, his intention was clearly jealousy from wanting to have a relationship with Riley. As it has been previously reported, management of the Walgreens store had received a complaint over Johnson's advances towards Riley and had attempted to separate the two from working together.

According to the prosecution, the jealousy would only fester after Riley's boyfriend at the time came to work at the same Walgreens store with the two of them.

The prosecution also stated that law enforcement attempted to contact Johnson following the finding of Riley's body. They did not find him at home but about 100 miles south of Colorado Springs that evening near Walsenburg.

Law enforcement noted that Johnson appeared to have scratches all over his face, and what the prosecution described as, "a botched haircut," indicating that he cut it himself in a hurry. Law enforcement said that Johnson told them he had been attacked by another individual, and that he was scared and ran.

The prosecution ended their opening statements by giving a glimpse into the testimony and DNA evidence that will be shown throughout the trial. They say it will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson was deliberately responsible for killing Riley Whitelaw.

Defense Attorney Jonathon Stafford opened their argument by saying that Johnson and Whitelaw were the victims of a brutal attack and that Johnson fled out of shame and fear, leaving his coworker for dead.

In their opening arguments, the defense says the important part of this case is, "not what the surveillance shows you, but what it does not show you."

They laid out the surveillance system again for the jury, highlighting what is on camera and what areas are not on camera. The defense stressed that the defendant does not have "to prove or bring the other man Johnson says attacked the two to the courtroom."

"Mr. Johnson was a prime suspect in this case, as he was not there when law enforcement arrived at the scene... Mr. Johnson did not murder Riley Whitelaw," said the defense attorney as he closed his opening statements.

The court was released for a mid-morning recess at 10:15 a.m. for ten-minutes with the prosecution expected to call its first witness to the stand following the break.

Witness Testimony

The first witness the prosecution called was a patrol officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department at the time of the killing. Detective Perry approached the stand.

Prosecuting attorneys walked Detective Perry through a timeline of the events as she was the second officer to arrive at the scene of the crime. Detective Perry described seeing a dead woman with multiple wounds to the neck and arms as she entered the break room. Following the discovery, a crime scene was established surrounding the store and area to process the scene.

Walking through Detective Perry's arrival at the scene and orientation to the crime scene, defense attorney Deana O'Riley began their cross-examination of Detective Perry, diving back into the details of her response time.

The defense talked about Detective Perry and Officer Wyatt, another responding officer. They discussed how the officer's cleared the building of any potential threats before Detective Perry was dismissed as a witness for the day.

The next witness the prosecution called to the stand was Bradley Pratt, a sergeant with the Colorado Springs Police Department. Sergeant Pratt is currently in charge of a team of detectives with the Colorado Springs Police Department in the Homicide Investigation Unit.

Sergeant Pratt said his team was contacted as the on-call investigative homicide unit to respond to the scene after the patrol unit called in the crime scene.

Immediately upon arriving at the scene, Sergeant Pratt says he followed protocols to get all the information that had been uncovered as evidence and gathered by initial patrol officers.

After outlying the details of Sergeant Pratt and his team's involvement in the case, the prosecution had no further questions.

The defense talked about Colorado State Patrol, the other agency involved in this case, during Pratt's cross-examination.

In his testimony, Sergeant Pratt talked about the Colorado State Patrol’s interaction with Johnson as they found him walking along I-25 near Trinidad. Sergeant Pratt stated that his team acquired a razor and sweater that Johnson had on him.

Sergeant Pratt testified that he and his team did not find any weapons that they believed were used in the crime at Johnson's house. The defense had no further questions and Sergeant Pratt was dismissed as a witness from this case.

Following the lunch recess, testimony continued with Berriesford continuing with her testimony on crime scene photos and 3D scans of the Walgreens store.

The prosecution walked through the images of Riley Whitelaw and the associated blood patterns around the break room. Berriesford continued to explain the process of looking at the blood stains and patterns found near the crime scene and how they use those patterns to reconstruct what exactly might have happened during Riley's killing.

Berriesford talked about the difference between the classification of blood stains and the process of classifying these stains. Berriesford explained in depth about spatter stains, which are caused by an impact on the body and cause a circular pattern from the blood spattering after that impact.

The prosecution singled out a blood stain that was found on a mop bucket. There was an opportunity to pull a fingerprint after a process of preserving and taking photos of the specific area. The photographs taken by Berriesford were later reviewed by a fingerprint examiner. The court did not specify whose fingerprints those photos matched with at this time.

The defense began their cross-examination of Berriesford by focusing on the mop bucket where the bloody fingerprints were located. Asking if these fingerprints were collected differently than other fingerprints found at the scene. Berriesford confirmed the fingerprint found in blood stains on the mop bucket was acquired through different means.

The prosecution released Berriesford from the stand for the day.

Dr. Jarod Murdoch, a medical examiner with the El Paso County Coroner's Office, was called to the stand by the prosecution. Dr. Murdoch went on to explain the scope of his work within the coroner's office, which includes conducting autopsy reports.

Dr. Murdoch was the one responsible for conducting the autopsy of Riley Whitelaw. The prosecution had Dr. Murdoch explain the injuries that Riley had sustained and what those injuries would have been caused by in his expert opinion. Based on the wounds found around Riley's neck, he inferred that Riley passed extremely quickly due to the nature and locations of the injuries.

The prosecution focused on the fact that Dr. Murdoch stated it would take a "considerable force" to perform the lacerations found around Riley's neck. The prosecution showed images of the wounds that were found on Riley's hands during the autopsy and Dr. Murdoch stated there was a total of 16 different puncture wounds found.

The prosecution had Dr. Murdoch classify these injuries as "defensive type injuries," going on to explain that when victims are confronted by an assailant with a sharp object, these wounds appear as the victim is attempting to stop the individual from attacking them.

As the court showed the images of the injuries Riley sustained to her neck, Dr. Murdoch explained the scope of the injuries and how they could have been caused. Dr. Murdoch said he did not see signs of strangulation associated with Riley, but could not rule it out.

The prosecution went on to ask Dr. Murdoch if he could identify different types of items used based on Riley's injuries. Dr. Murdoch stated that the injuries to him appeared to be from a single-edged knife blade. Dr. Murdoch says Riley's death was the result of multiple stab wounds, and ruled the death a homicide. The defense did not have any questions for Dr. Murdoch, and he was dismissed for the day.

The jury was released from court over an issue brought forth by the defense. The defense says the prosecution did not provide the defense with a report of a conversation between the prosecution and a witness set to provide testimony.

The witness would have been David Ternes, a Walgreens Asset Protection Manager of stores in the local area. The prosecution said while this conversation may have been had, there was no intention of delving into it. The defense repealed their issue, and Mr. Ternes took the stand.

The prosecution walked Mr. Ternes through the security camera layout and had him explain what those cameras could see and could not see. Mr. Ternes was the individual who gave police the surveillance footage on the night of Riley's killing. The prosecution brought the record of Joshua Johnson from Walgreens' database into evidence.

The jury asked questions about the various different locks, keypads, and the level of access people in the store had to these locks. Ternes informed the jury that codes could be easily changed, and that there was no way customers could get access to those codes.

This ended the testimony of David Ternes, and he was released from this case.

Anna Shelton, a close friend of Riley Whitelaw, was the next witness called to the stand.

Anna was choking up through her testimony as the prosecution outlined Anna's relationship with Riley. Anna stated, “[Riley] was one of my closest friends."

Judge Bentley paused the testimony to explain that Anna's testimony was being entered as limited evidence to the jury. This evidence is being used to prove a motive in the case.

Anna testified about multiple conversations she had with Riley, about sexual advances made by someone Riley identified as "Josh." Anna testified that Riley told her Johnson had made multiple sexual comments and innuendos to Riley in the conversation they had about the subject.

Anna testified that Riley had brought these concerns to Walgreens management, but stated there had not been much movement over the concerns. The defense declined to cross-examine Anna, and the court was dismissed for the day.

The trial will resume testimony Thursday morning at 9 a.m.

Case Background

17-year-old Riley Whitelaw was found dead in the break room of the Walgreens off Centennial Boulevard on Colorado Springs' west side on the evening of June 11th, 2022. Riley was found by the store manager after they had come back to the store to check on Riley after she had not come back from break.

Johnson, Riley's coworker at the time, was arrested the night of the killing after he was found walking south along I-25 near Walsenburg. In November's preliminary hearing, investigators told the court that they believed no one other than Johnson could be responsible for Riley's killing after reviewing initial surveillance footage and evidence from the store.

According to the arrest affidavit for Johnson, the manager became concerned for Riley's safety after they allegedly saw Johnson on surveillance video attempting to block cameras. According to the affidavit, Riley and her manager had previously spoken about her getting her shift moved as she had previously filed a complaint against Johnson over unwanted advances.

Riley's death had ripple effects across the Colorado Springs community, and the state as a whole. Riley, an Air Academy High School student at the time, was set to graduate that year. She will be remembered for her joy, curiosity, love for art, and helping others.


The mother turning tragedy into action

Following the media attention surrounding the death of Riley Whitelaw, her mom Courtenay, and Riley's friends took action after Riley's identity was released in an arrest warrant for her alleged killer. Governor Jared Polis and the Colorado Legislature agreed, signing 'Riley's Law', Senate Bill 23-075, into law in 2023.

The new law, which will take effect in 2024, is designed to protect the identities of underage victims and witnesses across Colorado from being released in reports that could be seen by the public.


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