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Plea bargain may spare teen from death penalty

19-year-old OKs deal in fatal 1999 shooting of teen

SHARE Plea bargain may spare teen from death penalty

At 19, Soloman Lee Johnson was one of the youngest people in Utah history to face the possibility of the death penalty.

But on Wednesday, the day of his preliminary hearing, Johnson entered a plea agreement that may shield him from execution.

With his head bowed and in a voice barely above a whisper, Johnson pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, a capital offense, in connection with the November 1999 shooting death of 16-year-old Wilber Canales.

He agreed to plea on the condition he receive a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, plus a consecutive sentence of one to five years for a weapons enhancement.

If Judge Judith Atherton denies the sentencing recommendation at Johnson's next scheduled court appearance Oct. 2, Johnson may continue with the trial process.

"I think it's a good decision considering his age and the degree of intoxication while he committed this offense," prosecutor Carlos Esqueda said after the hearing. "I think it would be difficult for a jury to find the death penalty. I think it is fair to Mr. Johnson, and it may bring a measure of closure for the victims. It was a good resolution all the way around."

Investigators claimed Johnson retaliated against members of a rival gang by fatally shooting Canales three times at close range while Canales partied with friends. Another teen was also wounded in the attack.

In addition to the reduced sentence recommendation, Esqueda agreed to dismiss other cases pending against Johnson and said current investigations would not result in charges.

Defense attorney Karen Stam said Johnson was at peace with his decision to plead guilty.

"He feels like he's doing the right thing," Stam said, "helping to encourage less violence by taking responsibility and subjecting himself to this punishment."

Both Esqueda and Stam said they are optimistic Atherton will approve the sentence. But, Esqueda said prosecutors are prepared to try the case if it goes forward.

Also Wednesday, the driver of the car that took Johnson to the site of the shooting pleaded guilty to reduced charges for his part in the attack.

Originally charged with murder and aggravated burglary, both first-degree felonies, 20-year-old Juan Carlos Samora pleaded guilty to manslaughter and burglary.

E-MAIL: jnii@desnews.com