LANSING — Trial court judges need not consider the looming COVID-19 pandemic as a mitigating factor when imposing sentence, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled, denying a Benzie County man’s appeal.
Michael Eugene Johnson, 65, a former Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s deputy and corrections officer, was arrested Dec. 28, 2018 and accused of holding a South Boardman woman in her car at gunpoint.
Johnson pleaded not guilty, a jury convicted him of four felonies — including unlawful imprisonment — and 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power sentenced Johnson to concurrent and consecutive sentences of between two and 15 years in prison, court records show.
Johnson, represented for his appeal by Nicholas Vendittelli, of Dearborn, appointed through the Michigan Appellate Assigned Council System, argued his sentences were improperly scored.
Johnson said inaccurate information was presented at his sentence hearing and that he was entitled to a re-sentencing because the trial court was “unaware of the impending COVID-19 pandemic at the time it sentenced defendant.”
Johnson had argued underlying health conditions leave him vulnerable to serious health complications should he contract the virus, and if Power had known the COVID-19 pandemic was imminent, he may have levied a more lenient sentence.
Appeals court justices James Robert Redford, Jane E. Markey and Mark T. Boonstra disagreed, however, and affirmed Johnson’s sentence as entered.
Grand Traverse County Assistant Prosecutor Charles Hamlyn appeared before the three-judge panel Jan. 7 to answer questions about the case, though audio shows none were asked.
“Information about the pandemic would not have impacted defendant’s recommended minimum sentence range under the guidelines,” a three-judge panel ruled, in an unpublished opinion Jan. 14.
“And even if a trial court were inclined to impose a below-guidelines sentence because of the pandemic, trial courts are directed to consider only ‘the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the offense and the offender.’”
Vendittelli, on behalf of his client, had introduced no new information that was not available to Power at sentencing, the appeals court found.
Traverse City attorney Craig Elhart, who represented Johnson at trial, said he knew of no other cases arguing COVID-19 should be considered during sentencing.
Johnson had received early release as part of the Michigan Department of Corrections efforts to reduce infections among those incarcerated, court records show, and was later returned to prison on a probation violation.
Johnson currently is lodged in the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson. His earliest release date is Feb. 25, 2024.
MDOC data shows 1,701 people incarcerated in the facility have been tested for COVID-19, there have been 900 confirmed positive cases of the virus as of Jan. 15.
Of those positive cases, 84 are active and four people incarcerated in the facility have died of the disease.
This story was updated to reflect the appointment of Johnson's appellate attorney. — Ed.