Terrelle Johnson confessed to killing his mother the morning after her decapitated body was found June 6 in their backyard in Stone County, a sheriff's deputy testified at a preliminary hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Justice Court Judge Justin Miles decided after the testimony of sheriff's Capt. Ray Boggs that enough evidence existed to send the case to a grand jury, which will decide whether Johnson should be formally charged with first-degree murder and tried in Circuit Court.
Boggs took the stand as Johnson, 29, sat with his head hung beside his attorney, Jim Davis of Gulfport, during the brief hearing.
Boggs knew Johnson because the sheriff's office had been called an unspecified number of times to the tidy brick home on Johnson Road, where Johnson lived with his mother, 51-year-old Sherry Johnson. She worked as a guidance counselor at Hattiesburg High School.
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Boggs said he went to the house for a "welfare" check — a law enforcement term for checking to make sure someone is OK — at the request of Sherry Johnson's two brothers and sister, who had not heard from her since late on June 3, a Sunday.
Terrelle Johnson said she was away on a cruise, but they did not believe him.
When he arrived at the house, Boggs said, Terrelle Johnson was sitting on the front porch. He insisted his mother was OK and had gone somewhere with a friend, but Boggs asked if he could look inside.
Johnson took Boggs and two other deputies into the house.
"When I entered the bedroom," Boggs said, "I immediately noticed blood everywhere." He said the walls and bed were covered in blood.
Sherry Johnson's headless body lay in the backyard.
Boggs said he did not see the head at first, but it was located about 15 feet from her body. Deputies arrested Johnson and crime scene investigators worked into the next morning to process the crime scene.
When that was done, they interviewed Johnson. He confessed on audiotape to killing his mother, Boggs said. Johnson said that he and his mother got into an argument over credit cards. He said he tried to walk away, but the argument escalated into a fight.
"He told me that he beat her up real bad," Boggs testified. " . . . He said it got out of hand."
Johnson said he then choked his mother until she stopped breathing. He decapitated her with a butter knife, he said, also using his hands and teeth to remove her head. He said he took her body to the backyard so the house would not smell bad.
Davis indicated after the hearing that it is too early to say whether he will use an insanity defense for Johnson. He questioned Boggs about Johnson's previous mental commitments. Boggs said his understanding was that the Department of Veterans Affairs had expelled Johnson after a previous arrest.
Davis said after the hearing that it will take time to acquire Johnson's hospital records.
"I've handled numerous insanity cases," Davis said, indicating that he had won one or two. "Trust me, jurors don't like them, so you better have a very strong one."
Davis said the decapitation concerns him the most. "I think there's a why behind that," he said. "I think trying to determine the why is very important."
Davis said Johnson had held temporary labor jobs, but had not been steadily employed as an adult. As a young man, he served in the U.S. Army and attended community college, a relative told the Sun Herald.
His father, the Rev. Rob Harris, sat on the front row during the hearing but did not want to comment on the case. He and Sherry Johnson had their son when they were young but never married, he said.
Harris recently retired as the head maintenance man for Stone County and is a Baptist minister, he said.
Outside the courtroom, a friend of the family said Sherry Johnson had tried over the years to help her son.
Davis told Johnson when they met before the hearing at the jail not to say anything to the media on the way into court, but, as he passed the Sun Herald and TV station camera's, Johnson called out, "I done it."
Staff Photojournalist John Fitzhugh contributed to this report.