Life sentence opens emotions for families

Raheem Johnson and his attorney, Kristen Williams, listen as James "Fluffy" White's family sits in the courtroom in the background.
Staff Writer

A quick verdict brings a life sentence and an emotional ending to a Clay County murder trial. But a prosecutor says it's just another step in a long healing process for the families involved.

A Clay County Circuit Court jury needed just 30 minutes Friday morning to find 23-year-old Raheem Johnson guilty of murder as an accessory before the fact in the May 15, 2015 shooting death of 38-year-old James "Fluffy" White on Dixie Road in the Mantee section of far northwestern Clay County.

Judge Jim Kitchens gave Johnson the only punishment allowed under the law, life in prison with the eligibility for parole.

But the 90-minute process was punctuated by an emotional eulogy, of sorts, from White's baby sister and quiet weeps and sobs from relatives on both sides, who often were just a few feet apart in the crowded hallways.

"We're proud of the verdict because it was a just verdict, but to say we find glee or joy would be disingenuous. We can't find joy, but we can find justice," Assistant District Attorney Scott Rogillio said, referring to the difficulty in trying any murder case, but especially those where young people are involved.

Raheem Johnson was 20 at the time.

"In the complicated recovery they have to go through, we're just a piece of the puzzle. I don't know that it's closure," Rogillio continued, addressing the emotions both families still must confront.

In an emotional tribute to her brother on behalf of the family, his baby sister, Lajaysha Echols, said her brother wasn't perfect but had a heart as big and good as anyone's. That heart inspired others, including his oldest son, who is now at Indiana Bible College studying to be a minister.

"It hurts to breathe, my smile, my life has changed drastically," she said, noting her brother was as smart as she was but chose a different path.

"I chose my books, you can be anything in this world you want to be. We all have choices to make, it's easy to make the right choice," she said, addressing her brother's killer.

"I pray for you, for your family. They are hurting, too. I am not mad at you, I would try to save your life," continued Echols, who has a nursing degree from MUW and credits her brother -- "her biggest cheerleader" -- with pushing her through.

Testimony revealed White and several friends were at the home of Brad Reed partying and smoking crack and had been for much of the day when the shooting occurred that night. Roderick Johnson, fingered during testimony as the actual shooter, came to the community from Tupelo looking for White because he thought White was "snitching" about drug dealings. He flagged Raheem Johnson down in the community and asked if knew where White was.

He told Raheem Johnson what he wanted and they hatched a plan for Roderick Johnson to go to Reed's house and "off" White.

When it happened, Raheem Johnson got his father, Kemp Watkins, out of the living room of the trailer while Roderick Johnson went in and shot White four times.

In a closing argument to the nine-woman, three-man jury, defense attorney Kristen Williams suggested her client was not part of planning the ambush.

"He didn't go looking for them, he was asked by them. He already had planned to go get his dad. He didn't go there as part of the conspiracy," Williams told the jury.

But in response, Rogillio focused on a few words to emphasize his point, especially the fact Raheem Johnson had admitted to investigators that he'd said, "F... it" in agreeing to take Roderick Johnson to the trailer.

"When he threw caution to the wind, he said, 'f... it' and only wanted to get his dad out of harm's way," Rogillio stressed, raising his voice for emphasis.

"He knew he was delivering evil inside this house, delivering a death sentence to 'Fluffy' White," he said, his voice still pitched.

"Maybe it was to get street cred, maybe to be somebody, but they took the law of the streets in their own hands. He decided who lives and who dies and that isn't right," the prosecutor continued, noting Raheem Johnson could have warned White or closed the door to give him a chance to run before Roderick Johnson entered.

"He had so many other options. But they clearly had an agenda," he concluded.

Roderick Johnson and a third man, Casey Watkins, who allegedly knew of the plot and drove Roderick Johnson away from the scene, also are charged with murder and face a May 16, 2018 trial date.

Raheem Johnson waved to his family as he left the courtroom but declined his right to make a statement to either family. He was taken Friday afternoon directly to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He still has an aggravated assault charge pending stemming from a bar fight last fall where he bashed a man in the face with a beer bottle.

He was free on $100,000 bond on the murder charge when he was arrested in the fight case. Rojillio said he would talk to the victim in the fight to see how to proceed with the assault charge.