Courtroom erupts: Howard's family exults in guilty verdict
By the third time the judge read the word, "guilty," the mother of the murdered woman let out a sob. The fourth time– the murder count– Katherine Danielle Howard's mother Debbie Umstadter jumped up and shouted, "Yes, yes," and the judge ordered her arrested for contempt and removed from the courtroom, along with two other family members.
That was the emotional end of the five-day trial of Gary Christopher "G-Money" Johnson, 19, who was found guilty December 12 of first-degree murder in the 2006 death of Dani Howard, 22, as well as on three other counts involving guns and drugs.
The jury deliberated for seven hours at U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, reaching guilty verdicts on all counts. "It's a good day for justice," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig "Jake" Jacobsen.
A jubilant Michael Howard, Dani's brother, left the courthouse with his arms raised. He thanked all the law enforcement officers involved in the three-state, multi-jurisdictional prosecution, and described his reaction upon hearing the verdict: "I felt like I won the Super Bowl for life."
And he expressed only contempt for G-Money, whom Howard now dubs "G-Monkey," and called "garbage." G-Money is the cousin of Dani's drug-dealer boyfriend, Curtis "L.A." Waldron, and he had come down from New York when he had nowhere else to live to stay with them. "Danielle helped him," fumed her brother. "She took care of him."
Howard described his sister as a vibrant, outgoing young woman "who got around the wrong people and didn't get away in time."
While the right side of the courtroom was packed with Dani's family and friends, G-Money sat alone with his attorney, Richard Davis, and displayed no emotion when the guilty verdicts that could put him away for life were read. He'll be sentenced March 16.
Eyewitness Justin "Trigger" Harris had testified that the day Dani died, February 22, 2006, her boyfriend had berated his young cousin for not working on his GED. When Dani and her boyfriend left to go buy a car for Dani, G-Money stole his cousin's softball-size chunk of cocaine, $34,000 in cash, his Glock .357 Sig, and Dani's minivan.
On her way home, Dani spotted her Ford Windstar and gave chase in her just-purchased 1999 Saab. According to testimony, G-Money pulled over on Cadmus Drive and fired at her, then left her to die in the street from two bullet wounds.
Wearing prison stripes, her boyfriend, Waldron, testified about the three haunting messages he found in his voicemail from Dani the morning after she died. Two of the calls were made at 12:16am. “The first message, she said she was behind my cousin and Trigger, and they’re in her van and won’t pull over,” he said.
The second message he received, he told the jury, Dani said, “I’m behind your cousin. I’m behind Trigger. I’m honking my horn and flashing my lights, and they won’t pull over.” And in the final message at 12:18, all he could hear was a horn honking.
Dani had purchased the Glock used to shoot her from Snooky's Pawn Shop on the Downtown Mall as a birthday present for Waldron in 2005. Investigators found the empty gun box in her house with a receipt from Snooky's. By contacting the gun's previous owner and comparing casings from a firing range to those found at the scene and in the minivan, police were able to identify the Glock as the murder weapon.
Perhaps most damaging for the accused, the prosecution brought in five witnesses on December 10 who all testified that G-Money had told them about killing a woman in Virginia. Reluctantly testifying were his girlfriend and best friend from New York, the two young women from Culpeper who drove the fleeing G-Money and Trigger to Harrisburg and New York (and saw their big wads of cash and cocaine as well), and a prisoner from the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail.
Prosecutor Jacobsen cited all the people the defendant "blabbed to” about shooting Howard. “Had he kept his mouth shut,” said Jacobsen, "this murder still wouldn’t have been solved."
Defense attorney Richard Davis contended there was reasonable doubt and that Trigger Harris could have been the gunman. "Do you believe Trigg has no motive to lie?” asked Davis.
"I never thought it would take three years to get a verdict," said Don Howard, her father, after the trial. "He's going to get what he deserves."
After being hauled out of the courtroom in contempt, Judge Crigler brought in the three family members and lectured them on disrespectful behavior in the courtroom– but did not further penalize them. "I can understand the emotion," he said, while still admonishing the three, "You owe respect to the court–- if not the defendant."
Howard's mother Debbie Umstadter has not spoken to the media before about her daughter's death, but after the case was closed, she said, with tears streaming down her face, "It's not any justice for us. It's justice for Danielle."
And even with the guilty verdict she had hoped for, she still reminded, "We'll wake up on Christmas morning, and she won't be there again."
Last updated December 16 at 9:40am. This version corrects the age of Gary Johnson.