An inmate already incarcerated for murder was sentenced to life in prison Friday in the 2018 killing of corrections officer Joseph B. Gomm.
Edward Muhammad Johnson, 44, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for killing Gomm, 45, the first such death of an on-duty Minnesota corrections officer.
Johnson appeared through Zoom video conferencing from a room in the maximum-security prison at Oak Park Heights. He said he had checked out a hammer on July 18, 2018, from the metal shop at the prison in Stillwater, where he was being held at the time, and used it to hit Gomm in the head, “twice, I believe.”
Washington County District Judge Ellen Maas sentenced him immediately after his guilty plea because the life term for first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer is mandatory under state law.
“Well, it was a long time coming to this resolution and I’m hoping that the family can find some closure in this,” Maas said.
Gomm’s death prompted a monthlong lockdown of the 104-year-old prison in Stillwater — often referred to as the state’s “flagship institution” — and led three officers to resign. At least 10 also took a leave of absence. Corrections officers banded together to demand additional security cameras and increased staffing in the prison’s vocational workshops like the one where Gomm was killed.
In a statement, Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell called the plea and sentencing “bittersweet.”
“Though it brings a fitting end to the judicial process, it does not relieve the very real pain and loss experienced by Joe’s immediate family, friends, and co-workers,” Schnell said. “Officer Gomm was an honorable public servant not because of how he died, but because of the way he lived – his memory and sacrifice should be forever honored.”
Johnson acknowledged that he meant to kill Gomm. He declined to make a statement beyond answering questions required to enter his guilty plea.
His only concern with the plea agreement was that he get an ophthalmologist to examine his one good eye. Johnson said it’s supposed to be examined annually, but that hasn’t happened recently because he’s been held in isolation.
As part of his plea agreement, the state agreed to a request from Johnson that it recommend he be confined in a prison outside of Minnesota, though there are no guarantees that will happen, said his attorney, Virginia Anne Murphrey. She said she understood that his eye would be examined but had no mechanism to guarantee that.
“Let’s move forward,” Johnson said.
Prosecutor Nicholas Hydukovich said no restitution was requested. Gomm’s family was awarded some money from the Crime Victims Restitution Board for some of its expenses and waived any restitution from Johnson, he said.
Maas said his life sentence must run consecutively to his sentence for second-degree murder in the 2003 stabbing of his roommate at the time, 22-year-old paralegal Brooke Thompson, while her 5-year-old daughter was nearby.
Michael Padden, a lawyer representing Gomm’s family members, declined to make a statement at the hearing.
“Today marks another step in the long healing process for those impacted by this senseless act, and it reminds us of the bravery and commitment of all Corrections Officers serving the State of Minnesota,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. “My thoughts are with the family of Joseph Gomm and his colleagues at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater,” Walz said.
Gomm’s sister, Audrey Cone, and her husband, Chris Cone, said in a telephone interview after the hearing that they were relieved, noting that Johnson was supposed to plead guilty in April but kept changing his mind.
“It’s finally over for us. Now the family can finally start to heal without worrying about another hearing being changed,” Audrey Cone said.
“Now that the book has finally closed on this trial, that’s been a huge weight lifted,” Chris Cone agreed. “It’s a complicated journey but we’ve been waiting for the trial so that we can move to the next phase.”
The Cones said they are preparing a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and also working with the Legislature on a reparations bill that would remove the need for one. The legislation has stalled, they said.
Audrey Cone said she had lived with her late brother for a year and remembered him talking about an inmate at the prison who had lost an eye and might be a problem. That was about 18 months before his murder, she said.
Chris Cone said before Gomm’s murder, Johnson had spent about 1,700 hours in segregation. They released Johnson to the general population so that he could get some skills training before his release from prison on his first murder conviction, he said.
“He had 3½ years left on his first murder sentence, so he would have been out in society had he not murdered Joe,” Audrey Cone said. “At least we can close this part of the book and try to move forward. We’re never going to get Joe back. That’s really the only thing that would ever fix this.”