The Georgia Court of Appeals has overturned 16 Street Gang Act charges against a Marietta man who was convicted in 2015 on those and 10 other charges stemming from two shooting incidents.
Appellate Court Judge Christian Coomer’s decision reverses Cobb Superior Court Judge Lark Ingram’s decision in part in the case of 29-year-old Johannes Lopez.
Ingram sentenced Lopez to 100 years, with half the sentence to be served in custody and the rest on probation, according to court documents. He remains in custody at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson, according to Georgia Department of Corrections records.
Coomer granted the appeal of the 16 Street Gang Act convictions, but maintained Lopez’s conviction on four counts of aggravated assault, two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, three counts of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and one count of criminal damage to property in the first degree.
Prosecutors accused Lopez, who they said is a member of the SUR-13 gang, of shooting at red cars in 2013, the color representing SUR-13’s rival gang, Norteños 14, according to court documents.
Coomer’s decision, which was handed down Thursday, states that while depriving Lopez of a witness to defend against the charges, Judge Ingram allowed the state to call an expert witness on gangs.
Coomer said Lopez’s witness is a Georgia attorney, former employee of the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office and former gang member, familiar with gang activities, tattoos, symbols and terminology, including those of SUR-13.
“Lopez’s inability to present his own expert witness was prejudicial to his defense and requires reversal,” the judge said.
Coomer struck down the prosecution’s argument that Lopez’s expert did not have “formal training, education or academic background relating to gangs,” saying the standard for qualifying an expert does not carry such requirements.
He also said the claim that the witness would have only been able to testify about gang activity generally, not specifically about SUR-13, similarly could not stand.
The prosecution was allowed at least four experts, who unfairly testified that the actions of which Lopez was accused constituted gang activity, according to Leigh Ann Webster, who represented Lopez in the appeal.
Webster said she is happy with the decision to reverse the gang charges, but feels the other 10 should have been thrown out as well.
“The trial, I think, was fundamentally unfair, not just on (the gang) charges, but on the other charges as well,” she said. “The state was allowed ... to testify about a wide range of material. It wasn’t specific to my client, it wasn’t specific to his actions. They brought in a lot of wide-ranging and incredibly prejudicial information.”
Coomer’s response to the appeal lays out the two incidents in which Lopez is accused of participating.
In the first incident in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 2013, victims were stopped at a red light on Veterans Memorial Highway in a red Chevy Cavalier, when a white Ford Explorer “rammed them from behind and kept going,” according to court documents. The victims followed the Explorer to a parking lot of a business, where they testified two people got out of the vehicle and began shooting at them. The victims reported the incident to police, including a tag number, and police determined the Explorer belonged to Lopez’s mother, the documents state.
In the second incident, about 30 minutes later and on Hicks Road, a red Nissan Altima passed a white Ford Explorer driving slowly with its lights off, according to Coomer’s response. A passenger in the Altima reported that “people inside the Explorer fired gunshots at the Altima,” the documents state.
When police responded to the 911 calls from the incidents, they pulled over a white Ford Explorer matching the descriptions from the two incidents and found Lopez driving with no passengers, according to the appeal response.
Webster said the prosecution failed to prove Lopez’s identity in connection to the shootings beyond a reasonable doubt, and the state violated his right to remain silent on multiple occasions, among other mishandlings.
Judge Coomer rejected those assertions.
Coomer’s decision cited video evidence presented in Cobb trial court that he said showed Lopez driving the suspect vehicle. He also said Lopez admitted to driving the vehicle earlier that day.
But Webster said Lopez maintains his innocence. She said she is evaluating options for next steps in the case.