DA drops murder charges against Merced man accused in Atwater slaying

Murder charges against Merced resident Tyrone Johnston, 46, were dropped on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2019. Johnston was initially accused of killing 40-year-old Arthur Hudson Jr. on July 2, 2018.
Murder charges against Merced resident Tyrone Johnston, 46, were dropped on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2019. Johnston was initially accused of killing 40-year-old Arthur Hudson Jr. on July 2, 2018. Courtesy Merced County Sheriff's Office

Murder charges have been dropped for a Merced man accused of killing 40-year-old Arthur Hudson Jr. in Atwater last year.

Tyrone Johnston, 46, now faces a single felony count of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. He pleaded not guilty to the gun charge Monday, and his bail was reduced from $1 million to $150,000.

The murder charge was dismissed after Johnston’s defense team re-investigated the case and found new witnesses who claimed Johnston shot Hudson in self-defense, said Chris Loethen, Johnston’s attorney.

“Tyrone shot and killed Arthur Hudson, but only because Hudson was going to murder Tyrone,” Loethen said.

Loethen, a former public defender who recently opened a private law practice, was hired by Johnston to take over the case last month.

When he reviewed the case, which was set for trial, he decided to re-investigate it with the help of Paul Johnson, a retired Merced police detective and veteran investigator.

The pair recently met with prosecutors and presented new evidence supporting the self-defense theory and corroborating Johnston’s version of events, Loethen said.

“I’m thankful to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office (for being) willing to take an honest look at our investigation and do the right thing dismissing the murder charge,” Loethen said.

When asked about why her office dropped the charge and what that means for their case against Johnston, District Attorney Kimberly Lewis didn’t comment directly on any specific details or decisions in the case.

“As with all cases, the District Attorney’s Office is in discussions with the defense regarding the prosecution and options for settlement regarding Tyrone Johnston,” she said in a prepared statement.

“Those discussions remain confidential unless both parties come to a mutual agreement and a plea deal is accepted by the court,” Lewis said in the statement, adding that her office is continuing to prepare for trial.

Johnston’s charges were officially dropped Monday morning, hours before Lewis took over the District Attorney’s Office from longtime District Attorney Larry Morse II. Morse didn’t return calls for comment.

Johnston initially was arrested July 12 on suspicion of murder and witness intimidation, just 10 days after police found Hudson with several gunshot wounds on July 2 outside an apartment complex in the 1100 block of Kelso Street in Atwater.

First responders tried life-saving efforts, but Hudson died at the scene, days after he was released from prison on an unrelated conviction.

Several witnesses provided conflicting accounts of the deadly incident to Atwater police investigators, including information that clashed with evidence at the scene, according to investigation reports.

Johnston and Hudson reportedly had a scuffle before shots were fired, according to the reports. Witnesses had initially told police both men were armed, but later they switched their testimony and said only Johnston was armed. Evidence seemed to point to just one gun at the scene, according to the reports.

Police believed Johnston may have initially intimidated witnesses, possibly leading to the conflicting statements, the reports state.

But Johnston told authorities Hudson pulled a gun on him and he produced a gun in response to the threat. And while witnesses initially told police Johnston likely shot Hudson due to gang connections, Johnston said he was the one who was threatened by Hudson several years ago and that a “hit” was put out on his life because he exited the street gang, according to the reports.

As Loethen and Johnson re-visited the apartment complex several times during their investigation, additional witnesses who were not interviewed by Atwater investigators supported Johnston’s claim of self defense, according to Loethen.

Atwater Interim Police Chief Drew Bessinger said detectives were standing by their original investigation. “To my knowledge, we contacted all individuals that we had knowledge of,” Bessinger said. “If the defense found other people we weren’t aware of, that’s a part of the justice procedure.”

Johnston has an extensive criminal gang history. But he claims he has changed his ways.

Among other past drug and gang-related run-ins with the law, Johnston was convicted in 2007 of helping Cuitlahuac Tahua “Tao” Rivera evade police during a manhunt in the weeks following the 2004 slaying of Merced Police Officer Stephan Gray.

Rivera was convicted of killing Gray, and sentenced to death.

Johnston was also known for years by his gang nickname, “T-Murder.”

Johnston says he has turned his life around and is developing a rap career. He also said he helped produce a “Stop the Violence” concert on May 13, 2017, at the Merced County Fairgrounds.

Loethen said Johnston will continue to fight the remaining felony gun charge, claiming that Johnston had a right to defend himself with a firearm during the fatal encounter. Johnston’s next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 23.

“It’s terrifying to be in jail, looking at life in prison,” Loethen said. “He’s thrilled the charge was dropped. And he’s thrilled he might go home soon to see his family.”