Lebanon women spent the early 1980s in fear of man dubbed “the Southside Rapist” by media outlets after a string of victims came forward to authorities – each detailing a similarly gruesome attack occurring on the south side of the city.
Ronnie L. Johnson, who received a life sentence, plus four years, after being tried for and convicted of one of these rapes in 1982, appeared in Wilson County Criminal Court Tuesday to petition to be released from prison after he was denied parole at a hearing in 2008.
Johnson was called to the stand as a witness and during an examination by his legal representative, Alan Poindexter, said that he believes parole was denied because of fingerprint evidence that may or may not have been presented to the jury when he was tried in 1982.
“I was informed the fingerprint evidence was used to convict me at trial,” Johnson said, noting that the information would have been brought forth by his attorney and not the state. “It wasn’t until I went in 2008 that I became knowledgeable of that fact.”
The fingerprint evidence Johnson referred to was his prints on a light bulb unscrewed from a fixture located on the porch of one of the rape victims for which he was indicted – not the victim in the case for which he was tried.
Johnson said that he filed a complaint against District Attorney Tommy Thompson for letters he wrote in opposition to parole in June 2003 and June 2008 in which fingerprint evidence and other evidence was mentioned.
Thompson, who also served as a witness, responded that the fingerprint evidence in question was present in another case involving Johnson, but not for the one he was convicted in and that it was simply an error on his part to mention it in the letter. “What I did was get the two cases mixed up … but my opinion is the same now as it was in 2008 and in 1982. I do not think he should ever be considered for early release,” Thompson said. “There is no cure for such a barbaric lifestyle as the defendant was living.”
Following the hearing, Thompson explained that Johnson was never tried for the other rape to protect the “delicate” elderly victim from having to publically relive the brutal incident.
Instead, Johnson was tried for what appeared to be the final rape in the “Southside Rapist” attacks.
Former Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe served as Chief of Detectives for the Lebanon Police Department when the incidents occurred and recounted the lengthy investigation. On the stand, Ashe said that blood-soaked socks had been used as key exhibits in the 1982 rape trial and that no fingerprint evidence was presented to the jury in that case.
Senior Judge Ben Cantrell concluded the hearing by saying that he would “take it under advisement.”
According to Ashe, 10 victims came forward throughout the investigation from 1980 to 1982. Victims described the alleged perpetrator’s height, mannerisms, voice and series of events which led investigators at that time to believe the attacks were perpetrated by one man.
Investigators noticed that the attacker would lightly unscrew the victims’ porch lights, enter the home and remove his shoes before committing each crime.
“I had officers out on the streets every night looking for this guy,” Ashe told The Wilson Post. “I had them write down the tag number and description of any abandoned vehicle.”
On the night of the final rape, for which Johnson was convicted, an officer tagged a sedan parked 65 yards from the victim’s home parked by a vacant ball field.
After delivering the victim to the hospital to treat injuries which left her “unrecognizable” to Ashe, he began to look at the description of the cars in the area.
“We found that car at the home of Mr. Johnson,” he remembered, adding that Johnson came from a very respectable local family.
Inside of the residence, also occupied by Johnson’s wife and children, Ashe said he located two bloody socks in the hamper – ones that would have been placed over Johnson’s hands to shield fingerprints during the attack. Testing confirmed that the blood on the socks matched that of the victim and was used as evidence to convict Johnson of the rape along with the victim’s testimony.
Staff Writer Sabrina Garrett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.