Trial to begin for alleged killer of Sabina Rose O’Donnell

Posted: May 01, 2012

AFTER BEING arrested for allegedly raping and murdering 20-year-old Sabina Rose O’Donnell in June 2010, Donte D. Johnson reportedly confessed to stalking the woman through Northern Liberties for her bike and dragging her off the bike to a vacant lot behind her apartment building, where used her bra to strangle her.

“I shouldn’t have did it. I shouldn’t have put my hands on her. All over a bike,” an 18-year-old Johnson said in his statement to police, which was read during his July 2010 preliminary hearing.

Johnson, now 20, is scheduled to be tried this week for murder, rape, robbery and related crimes that police say he confessed to committing on June 2, 2010, against O’Donnell, an aspiring dancer, model and actress who worked as a waitress at an upscale burger restaurant in Northern Liberties.

By November 2010, it appeared that Johnson would accept a plea agreement from the District Attorney’s Office for a sentence of life in prison without parole. But he changed his mind and changed attorneys that December. He went back to his first attorney two months later. Last week, that defense attorney said Johnson now has no plans of admitting his guilt.

“Absolutely, positively not,” attorney Lee Mandell said. “But something could change between now and [this week].”

Mandell said that on Monday he plans to ask Common Pleas Judge Glenn B. Bronson to suppress the five-page police statement Johnson made because his client’s intellectual capacity is “childlike.” Court records show the defense intends to present an “insanity or mental-infirmity defense.”

Johnson’s mother contacted police two weeks after the slaying and said he had confessed to her. Johnson, from 11th Street near Poplar, grabbed O’Donnell in front of her building at 4th Street near Girard Avenue and dragged her around the corner to a grassy lot on Orianna Street, he told police. Her nude remains were found there by a neighbor walking a dog.

Whether his statement is allowed into the trial, Mandell and co-counsel Gary Server have an uphill task in defending Johnson, who dropped out of William Penn High School in 10th grade.

In addition to the statement, Assistant District Attorney Richard Sax said he has DNA, surveillance video and other evidence to prove Johnson’s guilt.

“It’s the strongest case I’ve ever had from an evidentiary point of view, and one of the saddest I’ve ever had,” Sax said. “She was an absolutely helpless, innocent victim who was just at the mercy of the person who did this. This girl was just so full of life.”

If convicted of first-degree murder, Johnson would receive a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. The death penalty was taken off the table earlier this month by the D.A. Office’s because of Johnson’s age, Sax said.

Following Monday’s motion hearing, jury selection will begin, Sax said. n

Contact Mensah M. Dean,at 215-568-8278 or deanm@philly.com.

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