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Prosecutors seek first-degree murder conviction in killing of Minn. prison officer, county attorney says

Edward Muhammad Johnson, 42, is the inmate suspected of killing a corrections officer at the state prison in Stillwater on July 18, 2018. Johnson is serving a 29-year sentence for the 2002 murder of his girlfriend at his Bloomington apartment. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections)

STILLWATER, Minn.—Prosecutors said Friday that they may never know why Edward Johnson allegedly attacked and killed Stillwater corrections officer Joseph Gomm.

Gomm's killing on July 18 seems "completely senseless," Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said. "When people ask me, I say: 'Some people do things because they can.' We haven't been able to find a motive. ... This might be one of those cases where we'll never know, and that is frustrating for many of us."

Orput said prosecutors have enough evidence to seek first-degree murder charges against Johnson, and that a grand jury will be convened within 14 days.

Johnson, 42, appeared in court Friday morning, Aug. 3, behind bullet-proof glass wearing a Department of Corrections-issued orange jumpsuit. He was flanked by two Washington County Sheriff's deputies.

The court hearing lasted about 5 minutes.

He spoke briefly, answering mostly "yes" and "no" to questions asked by Washington County District Court Judge Mary Hannon. When he didn't understand one of Hannon's questions, he said: "Excuse me, ma'am."

Johnson, who has one eye, stared straight ahead into the crowded courtroom as Assistant Washington County Attorney Nicholas Hydukovich described how Johnson "mercilessly beat" Gomm. He did not wear an eye patch.

He was represented in court by public defender Laurel O'Rourke.

A number of people who said they worked for the Department of Corrections attended the hearing, but they declined to comment on the proceedings.

According to the criminal complaint filed Thursday, Johnson used a prison-issued hammer and two improvised knives to kill Gomm.

Johnson was charged Thursday with second-degree murder and second-degree assault. Under state law, the killing of a corrections officer constitutes a first-degree murder charge and comes with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Orput said.

In Minnesota, a grand jury indictment is required for any crimes carrying a sentence of life imprisonment.

"If I could come up with more charges against him, I would," Orput said Friday

No other inmates were involved in the attack, according to Orput.

"We know what happened, and we have gathered the evidence to show what happened, and we think it's a very simple, but very tragic case," he said. "We have no evidence of others being involved. He did this on his own. Gomm happened to be there, and (Johnson) happened to be angry enough to act his anger out."

Prosecutors asked officers with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to expedite the investigation, Orput said.

"The public really wants to know there's going to be justice served up, and so we felt that we really have to go as fast as we can without rushing things," he said. "As soon as we get indictments, we're prepared to take it to trial. We'd like to get this tried as soon as possible, so the public knows we're trying to protect them with swift justice."

Johnson is serving a 29-year prison term for the 2002 murder of his girlfriend, Brooke Elizabeth Thompson.

According to the criminal complaint, Johnson used a hammer to beat and kill Gomm on the third floor of a vocational building at the prison, causing "substantial injuries to his head and face." Johnson also used a "homemade knife" to twice stab Gomm in the chest, the complaint states.

After Gomm's death, Johnson was moved to the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights, where he remains.

The shop foreman at the prison told investigators that a prison inmate approached him and told him that Gomm needed help. When the foreman went into the shop, he saw Johnson striking Gomm in the head with a hammer, the criminal complaint states.

Several inmates told investigators they saw Johnson running around shirtless; correctional officers said inmates often remove their shirts when "they are involved in a fight or other aggressive or assaultive conduct," the complaint states.

When correctional officers confronted Johnson, he put up his hands and surrendered, the complaint states.

Since Gomm's death, corrections employees have called for more prison officers and changes to inmate discipline rules. Orput said he planned to meet with staff from the Stillwater prison on Friday afternoon to discuss the case.

Johnson, who had been incarcerated at Stillwater since 2003, was scheduled to be released in four years.

Although Johnson is incarcerated, prosecutors on Friday asked Hannon to set bail at $1 million, a move that Orput acknowledged "seemed almost comic."

"Maybe it's superfluous, (but) you have to ask for bail in every case," he said. "We have no control over (his) sentence. What if tomorrow some post-conviction thing led to him being released? It wouldn't happen, but why not ask for the bail that we do in every case? Make it high, and if it's not necessary, and we think it probably isn't, we're OK.

"He's demonstrated pretty clearly to us ... that he's a danger to society, and we can't have him out."