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MAN FOUND NOT GUILTY OF SETTING ROOMMATE ON FIRE; VICTIM, 56, DIED THREE DAYS LATER; JURY CITES 'LACK OF DIRECT PROOF' IN DECISION

November 23, 2016 - High Profile Cases

BYLINE: Tonya Alanez Staff Writer

SECTION: LOCAL; Pg. 3B

A former Fort Lauderdale retirement home resident was found not guilty Monday of charges that he doused a sleeping roommate with gasoline and fatally set him on fire.

Ilya Goligorsky died three days after the March 2006 attack, having suffered burns over 90 percent of his body.

Goligorsky's roommate at the Fort Lauderdale Retirement Home, Earl Mervin Johnson, 55, was charged with first-degree murder and arson.

"The best witness in this case, the dead man, stated, 'Earl Johnson did this,' " prosecutor Lanie Bandell told the jury during closing arguments Monday.

Nearly three years after the attack, Johnson was arrested in Seattle, where he was living under an assumed name. An episode of the TV program "America's Most Wanted" led to his arrest.

A Broward County jury delivered the not-guilty verdict late Monday afternoon, finding Johnson not guilty on counts of first-degree murder and arson.

"They had a dying declaration, but everything else was circumstantial and there was a lack of direct proof," Johnson's defense attorney, Mitch Polay, said outside court. "In my mind, the jury followed the law and returned the correct and lawful verdict."

Johnson, however, did not walk out of the courtroom. He was ordered held on a violation of probation charge stemming from 1982. Details of that charge were not immediately available.

The jurors individually declined to comment on the record, but said nearly in unison there was "not enough evidence," before boarding an elevator to leave the courthouse.

"Just not enough of what was necessary," one female juror added.

The two roommates at the retirement home at 415 SE 12th Court had argued over the air conditioning and other "little things," Bandell said in her summary to the jury. Two days before the fire, Goligorsky spit on Johnson, she said.

"He [Johnson] didn't like being disrespected, he didn't like being spit on, and he just couldn't get along with the victim," she said.

Three witnesses - another of Goligorsky's three roommates, a cook and another retirement home employee - told police that in the immediate, traumatic aftermath of the fire, Goligorsky, a 56-year-old Russian immigrant, identified Johnson as the person who had set him on fire.

But Polay cast doubt upon those statements, saying that the witnesses were inconsistent, that one admitted to mental illness and another spoke little English and said she had trouble understanding Goligorsky's heavy accent.

"How could you convict a man of first-degree murder without definitive proof?" Polay asked jurors, emphasizing the lack of fingerprints or DNA evidence.

Bandell told jurors it was Johnson's guilt that prompted him to flee from Fort Lauderdale and assume a new identity in a far-away state.

Had he been convicted, Johnson faced life in prison.

tealanez@tribune.com or 954-356-4542

GRAPHIC: Photo(s)
Johnson

LANGUAGE: ENGLISH

PUBLICATION-TYPE: Newspaper

SUBJECT: JURY TRIALS (93%); MURDER (90%); ACQUITTAL (90%); ARSON (90%); ARRESTS (90%); VERDICTS (90%); EVIDENCE (89%); WITNESSES (89%); CRIMINAL CONVICTIONS (89%); ENVIRONMENTAL LAW (87%); FINGERPRINTING (76%); FORENSICS (76%); FORENSIC DNA TESTING (76%); CRIMINAL OFFENSES (76%); LAWYERS (75%); PROBATION (75%); JAIL SENTENCING (73%); BURN INJURIES (72%); TELEVISION PROGRAMMING (69%); DNA (64%); MENTAL ILLNESS (50%) ASSAULT; TRIAL; JURY; VERDICT; {ZONE}; PN

CITY: FORT LAUDERDALE, FL, USA (90%); SEATTLE, WA, USA (79%)

STATE: FLORIDA, USA (90%); WASHINGTON, USA (79%)

COUNTRY: UNITED STATES (90%)

LOAD-DATE: April 26, 2011