Mental evaluation next step in Rifle murder case |

Mental evaluation next step in Rifle murder case

John Gardner
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Gail Nichols ordered Tuesday that Heath Johnston undergo a mental evaluation before she sets a trial date in his first-degree murder case.

Johnston is to be sent to the Colorado Mental Health Institution in Pueblo later this month to undergo the evaluation.

“I’m not going to set a trial date until the mental exam is complete,” Nichols said.

The evaluation will postpone the trial at least for three more months.

Johnston pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and impaired mental condition, on Aug. 11. Public Defender Steve McCrohan explained the “impaired mental condition” is part of the not guilty plea, and falls within the “insanity” guidelines.

Nichols accepted the not guilty plea, and accepted a request to allow expert testimony in the case regarding the mental evaluation. However, she warned Johnston that anything that he says during the evaluation process could potentially be used against him in trial.

Johnston, 20, appeared next to his counsel during the hearing in typical fashion, quiet and collected, and appeared to pay close attention when counselors and Nichols discussed specifics of his plea and mental evaluation process.

However, prior to being called in front of the judge, Johnston appeared to be joking with a fellow inmate. The two inmates were whispering to one another, and Johnston could be seen smiling and giggling at times. A much different demeanor from previous court appearances where Johnston remained mostly expressionless.

Johnston is charged with killing his brother, Sam Johnston, by shooting him in the back of the head with a shotgun in December 2008 in Rifle.

If convicted of first-degree murder, he faces possible penalties of life in prison or the death penalty. The DA’s office has not yet said if it will seek the death penalty in the case.

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