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Sheriff: Woman intentionally harms herself after learning she’ll face death penalty

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com
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Marlene Johnson

Marlene Johnson, who is accused of killing the woman she claimed was sleeping with her estranged husband, was hospitalized Tuesday after authorities say she tried to harm herself in jail shortly after learning she could face the death penalty if convicted.

The extent of Johnson’s injuries was being evaluated at an undisclosed hospital Tuesday night.

The Rowan Sheriff’s Office did not disclose Johnson’s condition. Authorities said in a statement that she “will remain under constant guard by law enforcement personnel while being treated at any medical facility.”

Johnson had not shown signs that she wanted to harm herself before Tuesday, the sheriff’s office said.

Johnson, 61, is charged with murder in connection with the July stabbing of Shirley Pierce, an attack so violent that the knife blade broke off and was lodged in the victim’s throat.

Johnson had accused Pierce of having an affair with her husband, court documents say. Johnson and her husband were estranged when the killing happened, investigators said. Threats, stalking and physical assaults had gone on since at least 2007, according to court documents.

A restraining order that Pierce took out against Johnson in 2011 says she “terrorized tormented and TERRIFIED me for no known reason.”

Johnson has been in jail since shortly after the killing. During Tuesday’s hearing, prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against Johnson, according to the sheriff’s office. A judge also denied a request by Johnson’s attorney asking for lower bail.

After the hearing, Johnson was taken back to the Rowan County jail for lunch. After distributing the meals, a female detention officer left the unit, according to a statement from the sheriff’s office.

“Marlene Johnson climbed up onto the top of a two tiered bunk, ... and then intentionally flings her body backward,” the statement said. “Inmate Johnson hit the floor below the bunk, with her neck & head striking the floor first.”

The statement said the incident was captured on videotape, although the sheriff’s office said it will not release the video “until further notice.”

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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