A surveillance video captured in high definition a fatal roadside altercation that led to a man being stabbed to death in East Austin in the summer of 2016.
But a Travis County jury appears to be having trouble deciding if Steven Johns, 19, should go away to prison for a long time or if he was justified in killing 25-year-old Joseph Lapaso.
The jury deliberated for more than six hours into late Thursday afternoon, but had not reached a verdict by 5 p.m. and was sent home by State District Judge Clifford Brown. Jurors must either convict Johns of murder or acquit him; there are no lesser charges to consider.
Video footage from a smoke shop on Montropolis Drive shows Lapaso climbing out of his gold Toyota Camry through the driver’s side window to confront Johns about 10 a.m. on July 1, 2016. He is stopped by Johns’ girlfriend, who testified she tried to get Lapaso to cool down and leave after he became upset over something Johns did or said to him as he drove by.
Meanwhile, Johns, who was down the street, moved briskly toward Lapaso and the two exchanged words. Johns took a three-inch knife out of his left pocket and transferred it to his right hand behind his back. He then moved his girlfriend out of the way to get a clear shot at Lapaso and made an upward stabbing motion that investigators said pierced the man’s heart.
Lapaso fled by foot across the street and Johns gave chase, stabbing him twice more — once again in the chest, and in the back. Eventually, Lapaso broke free from his attacker and rested against a pole before his body went into convulsions. He collapsed and was transported to a hospital where he was declared dead.
There were no weapons found on Lapaso.
In closing arguments Thursday morning, prosecutor Rob Drummond said Johns’ actions were not indicative of someone who was defending himself, but rather “a cold blooded” murderer.
Johns’ lawyers said Lapaso’s tattoos and height advantage over Johns made him a threat. But Drummond mocked that assertion, saying if tattoos and size are fair grounds for killing someone, “I’m going to be the only person alive in Travis County because I’m short and I don’t have tattoos.”
Johns’ lead attorney, Joe Sawyer, called Lapaso a “thug” who was “his own damn victim.” He added that because the video does not include audio, there’s no way of telling what Lapaso might have said to spark the confrontation.
Johns’ girlfriend failed to show up to testify, but at an earlier proceeding — a trial from two weeks ago that ended in a mistrial — she took the stand and said Johns was high on K2 at the time of the attack.
If convicted, Johns, 19, faces up to life in prison.