O'Donnell's killer will spend life in prison

Sabina Rose O’Donnell’s parents embrace after jury found Donte Johnson guilty of her rape and murder. ALLISON STEELE / INQUIRER STAFF
Sabina Rose O’Donnell’s parents embrace after jury found Donte Johnson guilty of her rape and murder. ALLISON STEELE / INQUIRER STAFF
Posted: May 11, 2012

EVEN AFTER THE jury foreman announced Wednesday that Donte Johnson was guilty of the first-degree murder and rape of Sabina Rose O’Donnell, and even after the young woman’s mother and other relatives told the court of the anguish of losing her to his senseless brutality, Johnson slouched forward in his chair and maintained his innocence.

Johnson’s shocking statement came after Common Pleas Judge Glenn Bronson had lambasted the defendant as “an extreme danger to the public” and lacking “any normal sense of decency.”

“I understand how the family feel about their loss, but how can you clearly say I did anything?” Johnson, 20, responded. “I didn’t do nothing. I understand where they coming from, but I didn’t have nobody die the way they said. I didn’t have no interaction with her.”

Bronson said that in 31 years as a lawyer and judge he had never been more sure about a defendant’s guilt and that he wasn’t surprised by Johnson’s stance. “It’s in keeping with your history of a lack of remorse,” he told the defiant defendant.

About 30 relatives and friends of the 20-year-old victim were in the courtroom for the verdict. The jury began its deliberations Tuesday afternoon.

“I look at him and think, even if he thinks he’s innocent, how can he sit here and not shed a tear for the horror that he’s heard?” said a shaking Rachel O’Donnell, the victim’s mother.

She said that it was difficult to sit in the same courtroom and breathe the same air as Johnson but that her daughter had suffered much more at his hands.

“He’s a monster,” said Heidi O’Donnell, the mother’s sister. “He has no idea what he did to all of us. He should never ever be able to walk on the same ground that Sabina did. He should never be able to look at trees and walk on the beach.”

Bronson made sure that he never will. For the first-degree murder of the Northern Liberties waitress who aspired to be a model and dancer, he sentenced Johnson to life without parole in state prison. That is to be followed by 40 to 80 years behind bars for raping and robbing O’Donnell and using her keys to break into her 4th Street apartment building and entering a neighbor’s apartment.

Trial evidence showed that Johnson, riding a bicycle on Girard Avenue after 1 a.m. on June 2, 2010, spotted O’Donnell riding a borrowed bike home. Surveillance videos recorded him pedaling behind her for blocks. Once she got to her building, he grabbed her in a choke hold and dragged her to a lot behind the building, where the attack took place.

Police linked Johnson to the crime by the videos, his DNA left on the victim and a statement he gave to police. He confessed to following O’Donnell for her bike and to raping her, but not to beating or killing her.

The evidence, however, indicated that Johnson was the only suspect and that he strangled the 5-foot-3, 100-pound woman with her bra strap.

His attorneys, Gary Server and Lee Mandell, argued that Johnson was born with brain damage and functions intellectually at the level of an 11-year-old, making it impossible for him to have given the confession attributed to him. They said that the DNA evidence was not conclusive and that Johnson was not guilty. n

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

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