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OR: Powers man pleads guilty in hunting death

Powers man pleads guilty in hunting death
By Jessica Musicar, Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

COQUILLE - It was a preventable, tragic mistake.

That's what the family of Cody T. Armstrong, the Coos County District Attorney and now the man who killed Armstrong say of an October hunting accident that ended the 20-year-old's life.

On Wednesday morning, Powers resident Kelly E. Johnson pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide with a weapon in the death of Armstrong, when he appeared for a plea change hearing at the Coos County Courthouse. Armstrong, also of Powers, died from a gunshot to the head on Oct. 26 during a hunting trip in the Siskiyou National Forest near Powers.

During the hearing, Judge Martin Stone spoke to the 41-year-old dressed in a blue Coos County jail jumpsuit, as Armstrong's family cried from courtroom seats.

"The state is alleging on or about Oct. 26, 2008, in Coos County, Oregon, you unlawfully, with criminal negligence, did cause the death of Cody Armstrong, another human being," Stone told him. "Sir, do you understand that serious charge?"

Johnson simply replied, "Yes, sir," and gave his guilty plea.

"Is what I read true?" Stone asked.

Again, Johnson said "Yes, sir" and made no other statement about the case.

Public defenders Carole Hamilton and Ron Cox represented Johnson, who will be sentenced at 1:15 p.m. on Tuesday.

In addition to a potential maximum 10-year-prison sentence and $250,000 fine for the class B felony, Johnson will have to pay $4,639 in restitution for Armstrong's funeral. District Attorney R. Paul Frasier said the State Crime Victims Assistance Fund had initially paid for the funeral and the restitution would revert back to that fund. The family held a memorial service for Armstrong on Nov. 1.

"He has to pay that regardless of the sentence," Frasier said.

Angie Armstrong, 45, Cody's mother, said she felt satisfied that Johnson had been held accountable. She was joined by seven or eight members of her family in the courtroom.

"It's not an accident to our family. He made a horrible, tragic mistake and one that was overwhelmingly preventable," Angie Armstrong said tearfully. "If children are going to hunt, they need to be well-educated in what is right and what is wrong because things happen just as tragic as this. I wouldn't want to see that happen for anybody."

She added that her son had been friends with Johnson for some time and she and other family members had known him as well.

"We're not hateful toward him at all. We're remorseful for him and his family, but he should be held accountable for what he did," said Cody's 22-year-old sister Tara Armstrong of Coos Bay.

Frasier said he could not discuss the facts of the case until after the sentencing hearing. However, he said Johnson, who'd originally been charged on second-degree manslaughter, got criminally negligent homicide instead because it's considered a lesser charge.

"You don't have to charge it because it's automatically included. That's what he plead to, obviously, today," the D.A. explained.

In addition to the plea, Frasier said he'd wanted to add a condition to prevent Johnson from ever owning or shooting a gun again. He explained that typically, a person convicted of a felony isn't allowed to have any type of firearm. However, there is a provision of the law that allows a convicted felon, if he has behaved himself, to return to the court after serving time and request relief from firearm prohibition that would only apply for long guns - such as a rifle or shot gun - that might typically be used for hunting. Because Johnson killed a man while hunting, Frasier said that would be inappropriate

"What I was trying to do was set up something that would prevent him from getting a gun in say 15 years from now," Frasier said.

Unfortunately, Frasier said, that will be difficult to do once Johnson is no longer under some form of supervision.

"This was an incident that was totally avoidable. It didn't need to happen," he said. "I just felt that under the circumstances of this case, he should never have a gun again.".

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