STILLWATER, Minn. (KMSP) - Prosecutors will immediately seek first-degree murder charges against Edward Johnson in the prison beating death of Stillwater, Minnesota corrections officer Joseph Gomm. In a court hearing that lasted just five minutes Friday morning, the state announced its intention to bring the case to a grand jury to return a first-degree murder indictment.
Washington Count Attorney Pete Orput says they still don't truly have an iron-clad motive as to why Johnson attacked Gomm.
“We haven’t been able to find a motive," Orput said. "We have got some ideas we’re pursuing, some possible theories. But in the end, while not obligated to prove why someone did something, this might be one of those cases where we’ll never know. And that is frustrating for many of us.”
Johnson was charged Thursday with one felony count of second-degree murder and one felony count of second-degree assault. Under Minnesota law, the killing of a corrections officer is first-degree murder and comes with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. But the statute also dictates that all first-degree murder charges must go through the grand jury process.
According to the criminal complaint filed in Washington County District Court, the July 18 attack took place on the third floor of building 20 at the Stillwater facility.
Responders found Gomm on the floor of the “M Shop.” The Ramsey County Medical Examiner determined that Gomm’s death was caused by multiple blunt force injuries to his head and an autopsy revealed Gomm also sustained two puncture wounds to his chest.
Investigators spoke with over 50 witnesses, including a second victim of Johnson’s attack. “Victim 2” as the complaint calls them, was an employee who is a shop foreman at the prison.
Victim 2 told investigators that an inmate initially told the foreman that Gomm needed assistance. Victim 2 entered the shop and ordered Johnson to stop. When Johnson swung a hammer at Victim 2, the foreman fled the shop to a nearby stairwell and Johnson barricaded the door shut.
Correctional officers told investigators that when they arrived at the M Shop, they discovered the barricaded door. Eventually, officers made entry into another door and Johnson surrendered.
Investigators also learned that the hammer was checked out to Johnson when he reported to work in the “M Shop” earlier that afternoon.
Johnson faces up to an additional 47 years in prison.
Orput went on to explain that he doesn't need a motive to convict Gomm.
“Right now, the hardest part, I think, for all of us is it seems completely senseless,” said Orput.
Sometimes the veteran prosecutor acknowledged bad people do things just because they can.
“This might be one of those cases where we’ll never know, and that is frustrating for many of us,” Orput said.
Johnson, a convicted murderer, made a brief five-minute court appearance Friday morning.
He was restrained, wearing a prison jumpsuit, with no patch over the right eye he lost years ago in a prison fight.
The 42-year-old answered several questions from a judge, including his name, date of birth, and his need for a public defender.
His bail was set at $1 million. Though, for all practical purposes, he isn’t going anywhere because he still has four years remaining on his current sentence.
Orput’s legal team announced they are taking the Gomm homicide to a grand jury immediately to increase the charges to first degree murder and the mandatory life sentence that comes with it.
“I put my two best prosecutors on it and there’s nowhere to go,” Orput said. “Unless he wants to plea to all charges, I expect a trial, and I want a trial.”
Orput and his investigators believe Johnson acted alone and did not necessarily have a past relationship with Gomm.
“We have no evidence of a malicious motive on Johnson’s part directed exactly at Gomm. Obviously, a malicious motive but right now it’s circumstantial. Gomm happened to be there. He happened to be angry enough to act out his anger.”