published Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Charges dropped against teen accused of killing grandmother

Three years after his arrest, a teenager accused of killing his grandmother will not go to trial, and prosecutors now say they aren't sure whether the woman was murdered.

Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston filed to dismiss the case on Monday after taking a closer look at the phone cord supposedly used to kill the victim, Lorraine Frazier. Police in Dalton, Ga., found Frazier's body in the bathroom, dead with the cord wrapped around her neck.

Until recently, Poston said Frazier's September 2010 death must have been the result of a murder. If you try to strangle yourself, you will pass out before you die. You would still be alive, just unconscious, he said.

And if someone killed Frazier, Poston said, circumstantial evidence pointed to her grandson, Joshua Jaran Johnson. Of the three people who lived in the house with Frazier, only Johnson was home at any point close to the time of Frazier's death.

Poston said classmates told him that Johnson, who was 15 at the time, had mentioned killing his grandmother before her death. And a neighbor told the district attorney that Johnson seemed too calm after Frazier died.

But Johnson's attorney, L. David Wolfe, argued that Frazier indeed may have killed herself. He said family members indicated she had attempted suicide in the past. Plus, the phone cord had been rigged in a way that would have allowed Frazier to take her own life.

The cord was wrapped around Frazier's neck several times and tightened with a slip knot, a type of knot sometimes used in a suicide. The ends of the knot sat "perfectly even" in front of her chin, something Wolfe said could not happen if someone sneaked up behind Frazier and strangled her.

Wolfe presented this evidence to Poston, who looked into it in August. The prosecutor then postponed the trial before filing for dismissal this week.

"We were not going to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this was a homicide," Poston said Wednesday. "The case that we had was largely based on circumstantial evidence."

Wolfe praised Poston for dismissing the case. He said the prosecutor had not examined the phone cord sooner because he simply did not have time.

"You have to understand," Wolfe said. "I'm working on 30, 40 cases. (Poston's office is) working on the entire county's worth of cases. You don't really focus on the specific evidence until about trial time."

Since Frazier's death, however, Johnson's life has been affected. He was arrested on Oct. 1, 2010, according to Times Free Press archives. Eleven days later, his family provided $50,000 to pull him out of the Regional Youth Detention Center on bond.

As part of that release, the district attorney's office demanded special restrictions. Johnson moved with his mother to Atlanta, where Wolfe said he was home-schooled and remained under house arrest for longer than a year.

He also could not return to Whitfield County unless he needed to attend court proceedings related to his case.

Johnson, now 18, also faced harsh punishment. Even though he was 15 at the time of his grandmother's death, the state could have prosecuted him as an adult because murder is one of Georgia's "seven deadly sins."

"The family is very relieved," Wolfe said Wednesday. "He is going to try to move forward with his life."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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