Judge rules ‘vision statement’ can be used in murder-for-hire trial



Early on August 22, 1998, James Christopher Johnson called 911 and told Arlington County police he found his fiancée, Andrea Cincotta, dead in their bedroom closet. Homicide detectives quickly zeroed in on Johnson as a suspect.

After around 25 hours of questioning, during which he repeatedly denied involvement, police video shows, Johnson slumped in his chair and said: ‘It’s all very hazy. Just an image… I see myself holding it and it slips out of my hands and it falls to the ground… I fell on it. She hit her head against the desk. Johnson said he was describing “pictures”, part of a “vision” in which he eventually put Cincotta in a closet. Police called it their “vision statement” and Johnson also provided a written version.

Cincotta, however, died of strangulation – not a blow to the head, according to an autopsy. Detectives believed that what Johnson described had not happened and released him. Then, 23 years later, Arlington prosecutors charged him with murder and alleged he hired another man to kill Cincotta. In July, this man pleaded guilty to first degree murder, but Johnson maintains his innocence.

Now prosecutors want to use Johnson’s statement – that he had a vision of himself killing his fiancee — against him in his upcoming murder trial, to show the jury that his testimony is not credible.

“I believe the statement is a lie,” Deputy Commonwealth Prosecutor Abhi Mehta told a hearing last week. “I believe it was a lie to the police to dump them for 20 years…and it worked. That’s why it’s relevant and that’s why it’s admissible.

Johnson’s attorneys were in disbelief.

“Was that a statement that he committed the murder, to derail the investigation?” said defense attorney Libbey Van Pelt. “It doesn’t make any logical sense. How did it benefit him?”

Her fiancé said he found her body 23 years ago. Now the police say he hired another man to kill her.

Johnson’s attorneys decided to drop the use of the “vision statement” at trial. They argued that it was irrelevant, unreliable and forced. But after a long day in court last week, Arlington Circuit Court Judge Judith Wheat ruled the statement was admissible.

Wheat said that although Arlington detectives lied to Johnson, falsely telling him that his fingerprints were found on Cincotta and that his time of death was determined after he arrived home, Johnson did not was not compelled to make the statement. The judge noted that Johnson was not under arrest and was free to go. In fact, the judge said, he had gone home twice and returned voluntarily, each time without a lawyer, to speak to detectives and take a polygraph test, which police said failed.

“The court finds that there is no evidence that the confession was obtained under duress,” Wheat said. “It’s up to the jury to determine what Mr Johnson’s state of mind was. The parties can discuss the value of these declarations.

Johnson, now 60, faces a three-week murder trial starting September 12. He lived with Cincotta, a librarian in Arlington, for nine years. She was 52 years old. Johnson told the Post in 2002 that he was innocent and that his statement was “entirely based on the information they gave me.”

The case raises the issue of false confessions, a phenomenon in which people admit to crimes they did not commit. Arlington prosecutors do not believe this was a false confession, but simply a misleading statement by Johnson to mislead police, Mehta wrote in response to the motion to suppress.

But Arlington police and prosecutors debated what to make of Johnson’s statement. Shortly after his release, detectives sent the videotape to Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, and then met with him, according to detective notes. He provided them with four research papers on false confessions and repressed memories. Retired Detective Cynthia Brenneman, then a senior detective, said she had no recollection of contacting Cornell.

And earlier this year, prosecutors contacted a local false confession expert, former DC police detective James Trainum, Van Pelt said during the hearing. Trainum, who wrote a book called “How the Police Generate False Confessions,” also addressed the defense and told them after watching the video that Johnson’s 1998 statement was an “internalized false confession.” Van Pelt wrote in a defense filing.

Arlington had previously been burned by a false confession, in a case involving a detective who also worked on the Cincotta investigation. In 1984, Det. Robert Carrig helped obtain a confession from David Vasquez, a Manassas janitor, about the rape and murder of Carolyn Hamm inside his home. In this case, Carrig also falsely told Vasquez that his fingerprints had been found at the scene, and Vasquez confessed as part of a “horrifying dream”, The Washington Post reported in 1989.

Facing the death penalty, Vasquez pleaded Alford and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. DNA later identified another man as the killer, and Vasquez was released in 1989 and paid a $117,000 settlement. Carrig spoke to The Post in 1989 but declined to discuss Vasquez’s interrogation.

Carrig, who retired in 2000, was closely involved in Johnson’s interrogation. He did not speak at the Cincotta hearing and was therefore not asked whether the Vasquez case played a role in police seeking an outside opinion on Johnson’s statement. . Instead, Mehta read a stipulation in the filing in which Carrig said, “We knew the ‘vision statement’ wasn’t true. It was laughable. I knew early on that he wasn’t telling the truth.

Carrig said he falsely told Johnson his fingerprints were on Cincotta’s body “to get a reaction out of him,” according to the stipulation. It is legal for the police to lie to suspects. “Mr. Johnson responded to the police deception,” Mehta wrote, “with his own deception.”

Johnson told police he left for work at Home Depot on the morning of August 21, 1998, and when he returned around 6 p.m., Cincotta was not there. He said he assumed she was with a friend, so he watched TV, did his laundry and went to bed. He said he woke up shortly before 1:30 a.m. because he realized the closet door was closed and Cincotta still wanted it open, Brenneman said, although he didn’t. didn’t realize he was home all night. Her body was cold to the touch, Johnson told police.

Johnson, then 36, was questioned throughout the morning of August 22 and then returned home. Later that day, after visiting Cincotta’s parents’ home in Maryland, he spotted his missing car on the shoulder of Interstate 295 in the district. “They’re going to think I did it because I found the car,” Johnson told Cincotta’s son, Kevin Cincotta, at the time.

On August 23 and 24, Johnson was interviewed by Brenneman, Carrig and Det. Romie Holmes, who the video shows, hooked Johnson up to a polygraph. Holmes repeatedly asked Johnson if he was involved in Cincotta’s death, and Johnson repeatedly denied it. Police say Johnson failed the “lie detector” test.

The results of a polygraph examination are not admissible in court, but Wheat ruled that the video of the examination itself could be shown to the jury.

Holmes and Brenneman can be seen in the videos urging Johnson to tell them the truth. Finally, on August 23 and 24, he made statements about seeing footage of himself arguing with Cincotta, which he called “a vision.” He said he lowered his hands during an argument and punched Cincotta in the neck, throwing her against the desk. He said he checked the pulse and found none.

Meanwhile, Kevin Cincotta and a private investigator, Pat Brown, focused on finding another suspect, a man who had taken a personal computer from Andrea Cincotta four weeks before her death. He had worked at Andrea Cincotta’s apartment complex, and when she asked if her company took scrap computers, he said no, but he would take it for himself.

She gave a man a computer. According to the police, her fiancé hired him to kill her.

This man was Bobby Joe Leonard. And in 2000, he was convicted in Fairfax County of raping and attempting to kill a 13-year-old girl. He was sentenced to life. Kevin Cincotta, then convinced of Johnson’s innocence, pushes the Arlington police to investigate Leonard.

Arlington police told the Post in 2002 that they had thoroughly checked Leonard and there was not enough evidence to charge him. Leonard then told the Post that he had nothing to do with Andrea Cincotta’s death, as did Johnson.

But in 2018, Arlington cold case detective Rosa Ortiz went to talk to Leonard in jail. Leonard confessed to killing Cincotta and claimed that a white man he did not know, but suspected to be Cincotta’s boyfriend, called him and offered him $5,000 to carry out the murder, according to the plea deal reached in Leonard’s case.

In his guilty plea in July, Leonard said he strangled Cincotta in his apartment and placed her body in the closet, but the $5,000 was not there. Leonard told authorities he took Cincotta’s car and left it on I-295.

Ortiz continued his investigation, and last November an Arlington grand jury indicted Leonard and Johnson. Leonard is expected to testify at Johnson’s trial, where his credibility – and that of Johnson – will likely be critical issues for the jury.


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