DALTON, Ga. -- If a Whitfield County judge rules in favor of a Dalton teen accused of strangling his grandmother and transfers his murder case to Juvenile Court, the 17-year-old likely will face far fewer years in prison if he is convicted.
Joshua Johnson faces at least 30 years in prison if he is convicted of murder in Whitfield County Superior Court for the death two years ago of his grandmother, Lorraine Frazier, prosecutors said.
But if his case is transferred to Juvenile Court and he is convicted, he might go free in four years, Johnson's defense attorney, L. David Wolfe, said.
Juvenile Court no longer has jurisdiction over cases once defendants turn 21, officials said. But there are exceptions during sentencing when a judge can require juveniles be transferred to an adult prison when they turn 21, said Tracy Masters, general counsel for the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
Johnson was charged with murder two days after Frazier was found dead on her bathroom floor in October 2010. Police said she was strangled with a cord. Johnson, who was 15 at the time, was treated as an adult because murder is one of the state's "seven deadly sins," or most violent crimes.
The debate in Whitfield County is over whether the state detained Johnson when he was given an ankle monitoring bracelet with a 90-foot radius, requiring him to stay with his mother at home, and whether prosecutors then waited to indict him beyond the law's 180-days-from-arrest time frame.
Georgia law says if a juvenile is being treated as an adult and is detained, he or she must be indicted within 180 days of arrest. If not, the case must be transferred back to Juvenile Court, Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston said.
Johnson's defense argues that the teen was detained based on an interpretation of the wording in Georgia code and the fact that he was confined while living with his mother in Atlanta.
The state argues that, when Johnson was given a bond and released from jail, prosecutors didn't have to indict him within the normal timeframe.
"You can't be released and detained at the same time," Poston said.
But Judge David Blevins, who presides over the case, acknowledged that ankle monitors have complicated the legal terms of what the word "detained" means.
This is the second hearing on the issue, and Blevins said he will make a decision on the case soon.
Johnson has maintained his innocence. His attorney has said he believes Frazier's psychiatric records will show the 57-year-old woman may have been suicidal.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.