Tuesday was a pivotal day in the ongoing murder trial of Christopher Strawn, as eyewitness Tiffany Johnson endured several hours of tense cross-examination from the defense — the alleged shooter himself.
Johnson witnessed the Oct. 20, 2015 shooting death of her friend, 30-year-old Brandon Cook, at Kodzoff Acres Mobile Home Park. She has identified Strawn, 34, as the shooter.
Strawn, who is defending himself in court, sought to cast doubt on Johnson’s testimony and offer an different suspect to jurors, but he generally failed.
On Tuesday he questioned Johnson directly about what she saw when Cook was shot and killed an arm’s length away from her.
“Were your backs turned to me, supposedly?” Strawn asked.
“Yes,” Johnson replied.
“Did I supposedly announce myself before a loud bang happened?”
“You walked in and yelled ‘F*** it, there is no God. I’m sorry I have to do this.’”
“Then you said you heard a boom?”
“Can you tell me what happened next?”
“When I heard the loud boom, I froze for a second, and I turned around, and that’s when I saw Brandon looking at me right before he fell to the ground.”
“Was there any further conversation?”
I screamed ‘What did you do!?’ a couple of times. Then you stated, ‘Don’t worry, I don’t have to kill you too.’”
“Did I supposedly leave at that point?”
During a conference with Pallenberg and Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige, and with the jury out of the room, Strawn confirmed that he intended to use cross-examination to propose that Johnson’s husband, also named Brandon, shot Cook.
The motive would have been jealousy, because Tiffany Johnson was spending time renovating a trailer with Cook.
According to Strawn’s theory, Tiffany Johnson lied to police and faked a hysterical 911 call to cover up for her husband.
“I’m not commenting on the plausibility of the theory,” Pallenberg said after summarizing Strawn’s argument. “That would be the factual theory as I understand Mr. Strawn is presenting.”
“Yes, your honor,” Strawn replied.
Eighteen years ago, the Alaska Supreme Court ordered a new murder trial for a man who alleged that the state didn’t allow him to suggest at trial that another man did the killing.
In Smithart v. State, the justices said a defendant needs more than possible motive to say someone else might have done the crime, but should generally be allowed to defend himself.
On Tuesday, Pallenberg asked Strawn if he had evidence that might implicate Mr. Johnson.
“If you’ve got texts or other things you believe support your theory … if you’ve got other stuff, you need to tell me about it,” Pallenberg said.
Strawn offered a handful of text messages from about a week before the shooting. Those messages indicated a rough spot in the relationship between Tiffany Albertson, as she was then known, and Brandon Johnson. The two married after the shooting.
Pallenberg ruled that Strawn could ask Johnson if she was covering up for her husband, but he forbade Strawn from speculation in front of jurors.
Strawn never asked the question Pallenberg allowed him.
Instead of advancing his alternate theory, he attempted to find inconsistencies between answers to questions Paige asked Monday and questions he asked again on Tuesday.
Johnson sat firm and directly repeated testimony she gave the previous day. If anything, Strawn’s questions allowed Johnson to confirm her previous identification of him as the shooter.
“What happened next?” Strawn asked.
“You left. When I couldn’t see you anymore, I looked back to Brandon, saw he was dead, and walked fastly to the living room.”
“Do you recall me saying, ‘Don’t worry’ … Did I yell it? How was my voice?”
“You didn’t scream it. You said it kind of loudly, and then you left.”
At one point, Strawn replayed Johnson’s emotional 911 call from the night of the shooting. In that recording, the dispatcher asks who killed Johnson’s friend, Brandon Cook.
Johnson initially replies, “I don’t know,” before saying “Chris Strong,” a name she knew Strawn by.
Strawn stopped the recording after Johnson said, “I don’t know.”
After Strawn concluded his questions, Paige made a few inquiries of her own. Those allowed Johnson to say that her husband was at their house with their two children on the night of the shooting, and that they weren’t fighting that night.
She added that while Brandon Cook and Brandon Johnson didn’t have a close relationship, they knew each other, and Johnson didn’t have a problem when Cook watched their children.
Johnson’s cross-examination started at 8:30 a.m. and progressed with only short breaks until after 1 p.m., when she left the witness stand.
Deputy State Medical Examiner Cristin Rolf took the stand at the end of the day, and the trial will begin at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in the downtown courthouse. Paige said the state has 15 more witnesses scheduled, and she expects the state to wrap up its case by Tuesday.
After that, Strawn will have a chance to present his case.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.