For his part in the 2008 shooting death of 19-year-old Joseph Ziegler, Clinton Johnson was sentenced on Tuesday to 15 years in prison.
The sentence resulted from a plea agreement between Johnson defense attorney Shannon Lynch and Cook County prosecutors, who dismissed murder and home invasion charges against the former Streamwood resident. In exchange, Johnson, 25, pleaded guilty to the class 1 felony of attempted armed robbery and testified against his former friend and co-defendant, Matthew Zucco, 23, who Cook County Judge Kay Hanlon sentenced to 35 years in prison last month following his May conviction on first-degree murder charges.
Johnson, who was diagnosed last year with cancer that is currently in remission, declined to speak at the late-morning hearing. However, the Hoffman Estates High School graduate had plenty to say during the trial. He described how financial woes prompted him to suggest to Zucco they rob Ziegler, an acquaintance, who they targeted because they believed he had money.
"We knew he dealt drugs ... and a drug dealer can't call the cops," testified Johnson, who served about 14 months in the U.S. Marine Corps before he and Zucco were arrested in April 2010. Their arrests came about 18 months after Ziegler's murder and resulted from a tip police received during a 2010 Northwest suburban drug sting dubbed Dial-A-Rock.
Johnson testified that he and Zucco entered the home through an unlocked sliding door the morning of Sept. 4, 2008. He further testified that while he checked out the upstairs bedrooms for property to steal, Zucco, who Johnson said was armed with a .38 caliber revolver, went to Ziegler's basement bedroom. Johnson stated he heard a single gunshot, after which Zucco ascended the stairs clutching his blood-soaked chest and saying, "I shot Joey."
Zucco testified that he shot Ziegler during a struggle over the gun, which Zucco insisted belonged to the victim. Ziegler died from a single gunshot wound to the head. His father, Jeffrey Ziegler, discovered his son when he returned home from his job with the Internal Revenue Service.
Zucco and Johnson wiped away their fingerprints and fled in a car driven by a friend. Johnson said he dropped the revolver into a sewer near the crime scene and that he later put 40 unfired .38 caliber cartridges into a sock and dropped it in a sewer near his house. Police later recovered the weapon and the ammunition.
Lynch told the court Johnson regretted his actions that day.
"It was a difficult decision for (Johnson) to testify against a friend," Lynch said.
Hanlon noted that in exchange for his plea, Johnson received the maximum sentence. He received credit for the 831 days he has been in custody since his arrest. He must serve at least 50 percent of his sentence before he is eligible for parole.
His client never intended for anyone to get hurt, Lynch said, adding "he entered the house with the intention to commit a robbery, which never took place."
"Clinton took responsibility for his role in what occurred that day ... and received an appropriate sentence," he said.
Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Mike Clarke agreed, saying "under the circumstances, it was a fair sentence."