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Defendant's speedy trial begins this week

A man charged with attempted murder for stabbing his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend will have his time in court while his lawyer has had little time to prepare.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published June 20, 2006


DADE CITY - Dennis Lennard Johnson goes to trial this week on an attempted murder charge that could send him to prison for life.

In an uncommon twist, the 25-year-old habitual offender has given his lawyer less than a month to prepare his defense.

"In a case like this, it's the client's life at stake and his livelihood," said Doug Spiegel, the Assistant Public Defender representing Johnson. "All I can do is advise him."

Johnson is accused of stabbing his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend in Zephyrhills on April 29. Authorities say the girlfriend, Christina Heins, ran into Cessario Acosta with a Toyota; Johnson then stabbed the man in the back with a knife.

Johnson was arrested May 10 and charged with attempted murder. The next day, Spiegel was appointed to the case. He said he hasn't taken depositions of any potential witnesses and doesn't know if Johnson plans to testify himself.

Once Johnson demanded a speedy trial, interviews of witnesses and evidence gathering had to cease, his lawyer said.

"Whatever I have at that time is all I have," Spiegel said.

The State Attorney's Office, meanwhile, has 10 possible witnesses lined up, including Acosta.

Zephyrhills police Det. George MacKnight, one of the potential witnesses, said it's rare for cases like this to move so quickly.

"This is the first one I've ever had, and I've been jumping through hoops trying to make sure it doesn't get (delayed),'' MacKnight said.

According to police and court records, Johnson and Heins were driving on Airport Road about 2:30 p.m. when they came upon Acosta, who was walking with two other women and a baby.

A witness said Johnson got out of the driver's side of the Toyota and chased after Acosta with a knife. Heins climbed behind the wheel and drove into her ex-boyfriend, throwing him on the hood of the car. She accelerated and swerved, then stopped suddenly, according to court records.

When Acosta slid to the ground, Johnson tackled him and stabbed him in the back, authorities say.

The pair drove off, then returned later for the knife.

Zephyrhills police received a tip weeks later that Johnson and Heins were in a house on Sixth Avenue, not far from the site of the stabbing. Heins surrendered and was charged with aggravated battery.

Johnson fled out the back door but was later tracked down, Zephyrhills police said. He remains in jail on $255,750 bail. Heins was released May 18 on $100,000 bail.

About two weeks after his arrest, Johnson wrote a letter demanding his right to a speedy trial, meaning he must go before a jury within 60 days. The trial is set to begin Wednesday in Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb's courtroom.

MacKnight said Acosta, who has recovered from the stabbing and is returning to work this week, will take the stand.

Acosta, 26, could not be reached for comment.

Johnson has a criminal history beginning at age 14 when he was accused of selling crack cocaine, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

He was arrested at least three more times the following year and the state labeled him a serious or habitual juvenile offender. When he was arrested in 1996 at age 15, he was charged as an adult with vehicle theft.

He has served multiple prison sentences as an adult, records show. His most recent arrest before the April stabbing was in January. The charge was domestic battery, FDLE records show.

Longtime Assistant Public Defender Tom Hanlon said clients facing long prison sentences sometimes gamble on a speedy trial.

"There's been a lot of times where people don't want to listen to what you have to say - what you can do or not do for them," Hanlon said. "Everything that has to do with the legal system's a gamble."