Crime & Courts

Herring trial: Parents weep while watching club’s video of shooting

In front of a jury and a packed courtroom, the parents of John H. Johnson Jr. cried together today as they watched of a video of their son hitting the floor after he was shot in the head at Chastity’s Gold Club in January 2006.

The video, shown for the first time in public, details what Richland County Sheriff’s investigators have said for more than a year: that Columbia attorney H. Dewain Herring was escorted from the strip club only to pull back up in front of the club’s front door in his black 1996 Toyota Fourrunner and fire a single shot before driving away.

The video shows someone cracking open the front door moments before the shot was fired. Donald Hawkins, a Chastity’s employee and the only witness to testify so far, told jurors it was Johnson who opened the door to see if Herring was still there.

Members of Johnson’s family sobbed loudly as they watched the security video, which only shows the top of Johnson’s head hitting the ground after the shot was fired. The sobbing was so disruptive that Herring’s attorney, former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, asked the judge to remove the family members if it happened again.

“I’ll take that under advisement,” Judge G. Thomas Cooper said out of the presence of the jury just before the lunch break.

Hawkins, a 1997 Irmo High School graduate who has worked at Chastity’s since September 2005, told jurors under direct examination this afternoon that Herring threatened to kill Johnson and said, “You don’t want me to come back here. Somebody’s going to get (expletive) up.”

The testimony is important because it gives insight into Herring’s state of mind when he pulled the trigger. To convict Herring of murder, the state must prove he had malice toward Johnson or, as 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese put it during his opening statement, “an evil heart.”

Harpootlian told jurors this morning that Herring did not shoot Johnson intentionally.

The security video, cobbled together from an assortment of cameras inside and outside of Chastity’s, on River Drive in Columbia, is digital and has no sound. Hawkins told jurors his version of what people were saying.

At one point, the video shows Herring talking with Johnson under the awning at the front door. Both men are gesturing with their hands, until Johnson points with his right index finger down the road. Hawkins said Johnson was telling Herring that “We didn’t sell that type of product, and we were for dancing only.”

In his opening statement, Giese told jurors Herring had ordered a private dance in one of the club’s “champagne rooms.” Once inside the room, which has no door but is covered with beads, Herring undressed and began masturbating, Giese said. Hawkins, who said he was watching the front door that night, did not see Herring naked but testified that he saw Herring putting his sweater back on in one of the back rooms.

Harpootlian will cross-examine Hawkins later this afternoon.