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Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Case of the Sleeping Judge

     On December 29, 2013, 21-year-old Daquantrius Johnson and two of his friends, Keith Hickles and Quanique Thomas-Hammen, pulled into the drive-through lane at a Taco Bell in Wichita, Kansas. As they waited to put in their orders they witnessed the pickup truck ahead of them suddenly lurch forward and crash into the fast-food speaker.

     The pickup truck's driver, 43-year-old Danielle Zimmerman, had lost consciousness from a ruptured brain aneurism. Daquantrius Johnson and his passengers approached the unconscious woman's vehicle. They had no intention of rendering aid. Instead, they saw an opportunity for theft. While Hickles and Thomas-Hammen rummaged through Zimmerman's purse and grabbed her wallet, Johnson pulled her wedding ring off her finger.

     The next day Danielle Zimmerman died at a nearby hospital.

     Daquantrius Johnson and his friends, as they stripped the unconscious woman of her valuables, were recorded on a Taco Bell surveillance camera.

     Not long after Johnson, Hickles and Thomas-Hammen picked their victim clean, they were taken into custody. About a year later Hickles and Thomas-Hammen pleaded guilty to theft and were sentenced to nine and nineteen months respectively.

     In March 2015 Daquantrius Johnson went on trial for aggravated robbery. Following a short deliberation the jury found him guilty as charged. Sedgwick County Judge Christopher Magana sentenced Johnson, who at the time was on probation for burglary, to eleven years in prison.

     In 2016, while serving time for the Taco Bell depravity, Daquantrius Johnson was in a Sedgwick Country courtroom again, this time as a defendant in an unrelated firearms case. On the first day of the proceeding, trial judge Benjamin Burgess fell asleep on the bench.

     While everyone in court witnessed the judge's nap, the trial went forward and Daquantrius Johnson was found guilty. Judge Burgess sentenced him to eight months in prison, time to be served after he completed his Taco Bell sentence.

     Attorneys representing Daquantrius Johnson in the firearms case appealed his conviction to the Kansas Court of Appeals on grounds that following his nap, Judge Burgess should have declared a mistrial.

     In 2017, the three-judge appellate panel in a 2-1 decision denied Johnson a new trial.

     Johnson's lawyers contested the state appeals court ruling before the Kansas Supreme Court. In November 2019 the state's highest court ruled that while Judge Burgess' courtroom snooze constituted "regrettable misconduct," it did not justify grounds for a new trial. Daquantrius Johnson's firearms conviction would therefore stand.

     While legal scholars argued over the supreme court's decision, very few commentators expressed sympathy for the man who had ripped a wedding ring off a dying woman's finger. There are some crimes that cannot be forgiven, and this was one of them.

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