Convicted killer Ray Lamar Johnston’s voice echoed through a Hillsborough County courtroom Friday morning as he finally admitted what he had denied for more than two decades: he murdered Janice Nugent.
Appearing via video stream from prison, Johnston’s face filled a large screen next to Judge Michelle Sisco as his victim’s family members watched from benches in the courtroom. Johnston read from a note.
“I strangled her and took her life,” he admitted. “She was never unkind to me. She never in any way gave me cause to do violence towards her,” Johnston said, adding that he and 47-year-old Nugent had not been in any sort of relationship before he killed her in her Seminole Heights home in February 1997.
“I appreciate that my words will be spoken in vain to those who have suffered a lifetime of anger and bereavement because of my conduct,” he added.
These were the words Nugent’s daughter Kelli Loehr had waited more than two decades to hear.
Johnston denied killing Nugent when he was tried and convicted of her murder in 2001. He denied it during the sentencing, when a jury voted 7-5 to recommend the death penalty. And he denied it a year later, when an appeal prompted a new sentencing that resulted in an 11-1 death penalty recommendation.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned Johnston’s death sentence because the jury’s recommendation was not unanimous.
Prosecutors with the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office began preparing for a third sentencing hearing, planning to ask a new jury for a unanimous recommendation of death.
Johnston, now 66 years old, is currently awaiting execution for a different crime—the rape and murder of LeAnne Coryell in North Tampa, also in 1997. That jury voted 12-0 to recommend the death penalty for that crime, and the last of his appeals, to the United States Supreme Court, was exhausted in 2020. Johnston had multiple prior convictions for violence and sexual assault against five other women from the 1970s and 1980s.
Although Johnston is already on death row, the State Attorney’s Office was prepared to retry the sentencing phase of Nugent’s murder trial. “It may not have made a difference in the defendant’s ultimate fate, but it certainly makes a difference for Janice’s family. They deserve justice, and we were intent on delivering it,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said.
In the weeks leading up to the new sentencing phase, as Loehr faced reliving her mother’s murder at trial for a third time, she worked with prosecutors on a different path to deliver justice for her mother.
Loehr told prosecutors that, more than anything, Johnston’s admission of guilt would bring closure for her and her family.
The State and defense came to an agreement, and on Friday, Johnston told the truth about killing Janice Nugent for the first time in 24 years.
After Johnston provided a truthful confession, as well as long-sought answers about whether he had abused his victim and whether they had any existing relationship, the State agreed that it would not make a third attempt at securing a second death penalty against Johnston.
“Kelli and her family waited 24 years for this murderer to confess. I’m proud that we were able to reward their perseverance with the closure that they deserve,” Warren said.
Johnston’s sentence for Nugent’s murder will automatically convert to life in prison, and he will remain on death row for the murder of Coryell.
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