'Nothing will bring our brother back': Prison officer's family speaks after arraignment
ST. PAUL—Members of Joseph Gomm's family sat in a Washington County courthouse in Stillwater on Friday morning, Aug. 17, and watched as the inmate charged with the corrections officer's murder was arraigned on charges of first-degree murder.
Five armed deputies surrounded Edward Muhammed Johnson as he entered the courtroom for the five-minute court hearing.
Johnson, 42, has been charged with first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree murder of a corrections officer in connection with Gomm's bludgeoning death on July 18 at the Stillwater prison. A grand jury returned the indictment earlier this week. If convicted, Johnson could be imprisoned for life without possibility of parole.
But Gomm's family members said no amount of punishment would ever be enough.
"Nothing will bring our brother back," his sister, Audrey Cone, said after the court hearing.
Gomm, a 16-year veteran of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, had long feared for his life on the job, Cone said.
"He was scared," she said. "He was nervous. He told me every day that he went to work that there was a chance he would never come home."
Gomm was "extremely worried" about workplace safety, said Michael Padden, the attorney hired by Gomm's family members to represent them in any possible wrongful-death lawsuit.
"Joe was a sitting duck, and he knew it," Padden said. "Edward Johnson was an angry, ticking time bomb who could explode at any minute. Why something substantive was not done about that before July 18 is difficult to comprehend."
Gomm's family members are pushing for changes that would make prisons safer for those who work there, Padden said.
"It takes a tragedy to initiate change, and that's unfortunate," he said. "There had been concerns for a long time, staffing concerns, etc., and I think it's obvious that something is going to happen now. It's just unfortunate that it took the loss of life. My clients feel like Joe, in essence, was a sacrificial lamb."
David Wood, Gomm's brother-in-law, said changes must be made. "There are guards that are there now that still have to go work every day," he said. "They need to be safe."
Gomm moved to Minnesota from Maine 17 years ago, following his sister and brother-in-law, Angela and David Wood, and his mother, Gloria Gomm. Sister Audrey Cone followed about five years ago; she and her husband, Chris, live in St. Francis.
Gomm "missed out on a lot of family time" because of his job, Cone said. He wouldn't go to baseball games or the Minnesota State Fair, for example, for fear he would be recognized by a former inmate, she said.
"He was proud of his position, proud of his responsibility, proud of his job," Chris Cone said. "He wanted to help people. He was a very large-hearted man. He would give the shirt off his back to anyone. He felt like he was needed."
Gomm was known as a corrections officer who "treated the inmates decently," Padden said. "He was a good guy, which makes this situation that much worse."
Family members said they were flooded with sympathy cards from all 50 states after Gomm's death.
"It's been tremendous," said Angela Wood, who lives in Blaine. "We can't thank everyone enough for all the love and support we've been given."
What happens next
Johnson is next scheduled to appear in court Nov. 2. A trial likely will be held in March or April.
Johnson was initially charged with second-degree intentional murder and second-degree assault, but the charges were upgraded this week. In Minnesota, a grand jury indictment is required for any crime carrying a sentence of life imprisonment.
According to the criminal complaint, Johnson used a prison-issued hammer to beat Gomm in the head and kill him. He also used an improvised knife to twice stab Gomm in the chest, the complaint states.
At the time of Gomm's death, Johnson was serving a 29-year prison term for the 2002 murder of his girlfriend.
In 2004, Johnson lost his right eye after he was stabbed by a fellow inmate during a fight at the prison.
"There are facts that are going to come out that are really disturbing," Padden said. "For example, that the date Gomm was killed was the anniversary date of the day Johnson lost his eye."
Padden said any decision about a possible wrongful-death lawsuit would not be made until after Johnson's trial and the completion of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigation.