Friday, May 27th, 2022

Murderer Admits Guilt 20 Years Later Gives Tampa Family Closure

Murderer Admits Guilt 20 Years Later Gives Tampa Family Closure TAMPA, FL — Convicted killer Ray Lamar Johnston’s voice echoed through a Hillsborough County courtroom as he finally admitted what he had denied for more than two decades: he murdered Janice Nugent.

Appearing via video stream from prison, Johnston’s face filled a large screen next to Judge Michelle Sisco as his victim’s family members watched from benches in the courtroom. Johnston read from a note.

“I strangled her and took her life,” he admitted. “She was never unkind to me. She never in any way gave me cause to do violence towards her,” Johnston said, adding that he and 47-year-old Nugent had not been in any sort of relationship before he killed her in her Seminole Heights home in February 1997.

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“I appreciate that my words will be spoken in vain to those who have suffered a lifetime of anger and bereavement because of my conduct,” he added.

These were the words Nugent’s daughter, Kelli Loehr, had waited more than two decades to hear.

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Johnston denied killing Nugent when he was tried and convicted of her murder in 2001. He denied it during the sentencing, when a jury voted 7-5 to recommend the death penalty. And he denied it a year later, when an appeal prompted a new sentencing that resulted in an 11-1 death penalty recommendation.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned Johnston’s death sentence because the jury’s recommendation was not unanimous. Prosecutors with the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office began preparing for a third sentencing hearing, planning to ask a new jury for a unanimous recommendation of death.

Johnston, now 66 years old, is awaiting execution for a different crime — the rape and murder of LeAnne Coryell in North Tampa, also in 1997. That jury voted 12-0 to recommend the death penalty for that crime, and the last of his appeals, to the United States Supreme Court, was exhausted in 2020. Johnston had multiple prior convictions for violence and sexual assault against five other women from the 1970s and 1980s.

Although Johnston is already on death row, the State Attorney’s Office was prepared to retry the sentencing phase of Nugent’s murder trial.

“It may not have made a difference in the defendant’s ultimate fate, but it certainly makes a difference for Janice’s family. They deserve justice, and we were intent on delivering it,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said.

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In the weeks leading up to the new sentencing phase, as Loehr faced reliving her mother’s murder at trial for a third time, she worked with prosecutors on a different path to deliver justice for her mother. Loehr told prosecutors that, more than anything, Johnston’s admission of guilt would bring closure for her and her family.

The state and defense came to an agreement, and on Sept. 24, Johnston told the truth about killing Janice Nugent for the first time in 24 years.

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