The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He said he had a ‘vision’ of his fiancee’s death. It wasn’t what it seemed.

Prosecutors say James Christopher Johnson hired a man to kill Andrea Cincotta, and his ‘vision’ was meant to trick police. His defense says that makes no sense.

Andrea Cincotta at the Takoma Park Library, where she worked, in 1985. She was found slain in her apartment in August 1998. (Family Photo/Kevin Cincotta)
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Early on Aug. 22, 1998, James Christopher Johnson called 911 and told the Arlington County police that he’d found his fiancee, Andrea Cincotta, dead in their bedroom closet. Homicide detectives quickly zeroed in on Johnson as their suspect.

After about 25 hours of interrogation in which he repeatedly denied any involvement, a police video shows, Johnson slumped down in his chair and said, “It’s all very hazy. Just an image … I see me holding her and she slips out of my hands and she goes down to the floor … I fell on top of her. She hit her head on the desk.” Johnson said he was describing “images,” part of a “vision” in which he ultimately put Cincotta in a closet. The police called it his “vision statement,” and Johnson supplied a written version, too.

Cincotta, however, died from strangulation — not a blow to the head, an autopsy found. The detectives believed what Johnson had described didn’t happen, and released him. Then, 23 years later, Arlington prosecutors indicted him on a murder charge and alleged he hired another man to kill Cincotta. In July, that man pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, but Johnson maintains his innocence.

Now, prosecutors want to use Johnson’s statement — that he had a vision of himself killing his fiancee — against him at his upcoming murder trial, to show the jury that his testimony isn’t credible.

“I believe the statement is a lie,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Abhi Mehta said in a hearing last week. “I believe it was a lie to police to throw them off for 20 years … and it worked. That’s why it’s relevant and that’s why it’s admissible.”

Johnson’s lawyers were incredulous.

“It was a statement that he committed the murder, to derail the investigation?” said defense attorney Libbey Van Pelt. “It makes no logical sense. How did it benefit him?”

Her fiance said he found her body 23 years ago. Now police say he hired another man to kill her.

Johnson’s lawyers moved to suppress the “vision statement” from being used at trial. They argued it was irrelevant, unreliable and coerced. But after a day long hearing last week, Arlington Circuit Court Judge Judith Wheat ruled the statement was admissible.

Wheat said that even though Arlington detectives lied to Johnson, telling him falsely that his fingerprints were found on Cincotta and her time of death was determined to be after he had arrived home, Johnson hadn’t been coerced into making the statement. The judge noted that Johnson wasn’t under arrest and was free to leave. In fact, the judge said, he had gone home twice and returned voluntarily, each time without a lawyer, to speak to detectives and take a polygraph test, which the police said he failed.

“The court finds that there is no evidence that the confession was coerced,” Wheat said. “It’s up to the jury to determine what Mr. Johnson’s state of mind was. The parties can argue the value of those statements.”

Johnson, now 60, faces a three-week murder trial beginning Sept. 12. He lived with Cincotta, a librarian in Arlington, for nine years. She was 52. Johnson told The Post in 2002 that he was innocent and his statement was “based entirely on information that they gave me.”

The case raises the issue of false confessions, a phenomenon in which people admit to crimes they didn’t commit. Arlington prosecutors don’t believe it was a false confession, merely a deceptive statement by Johnson to fool the police, Mehta wrote in response to the suppression motion.

But Arlington police and prosecutors were concerned about what to do with Johnson’s statement. Soon after he was released, detectives sent the videotape to Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, and then met with him, one detective’s notes show. He provided them four research articles on false confessions and repressed memories. Retired Detective Cynthia Brenneman, then the lead detective, said she had no memory of contacting Cornell.

And earlier this year, prosecutors contacted a local expert in false confessions, former D.C. police Detective James Trainum, Van Pelt said during the hearing. Trainum, who wrote a book titled “How the Police Generate False Confessions,” also spoke to the defense and told them after watching the video that Johnson’s 1998 statement was an “internalized false confession,” Van Pelt wrote in a defense filing.

Arlington had been burned by a false confession before, in a case involving a detective who also worked on the Cincotta investigation. In 1984, Det. Robert Carrig helped elicit a confession from David Vasquez, a Manassas janitor, to the rape and murder of Carolyn Hamm inside her home. In that case, Carrig also falsely told Vasquez that his fingerprints were found at the scene, and Vasquez confessed as part of “a horrible dream,” The Washington Post reported in 1989.

Facing the death penalty, Vasquez entered an Alford plea and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. DNA later identified another man as the killer and Vasquez was released in 1989 and paid a $117,000 settlement. Carrig spoke to The Post in 1989 but declined to discuss the interrogation of Vasquez.

Carrig, who retired in 2000, was closely involved in the questioning of Johnson. He did not take the stand during the Cincotta hearing, and so wasn’t asked about whether the Vasquez case played a role in police seeking an outside opinion on Johnson’s statement. Instead, Mehta read a stipulation into the record in which Carrig said, “We knew the ‘vision statement’ wasn’t true. It was laughable. I knew early on that he wasn’t telling the truth.”

Carrig said he falsely told Johnson that his fingerprints were on Cincotta’s body “to get a reaction out of him,” according to the stipulation. It is legal for police to lie to suspects. “Mr. Johnson responded to police deceit,” Mehta wrote, “with deceit of his own.”

Johnson told police that he left for work at Home Depot on the morning of Aug. 21, 1998, and when he came home around 6 p.m., Cincotta was not there. He said he presumed she was with a friend, so he watched TV, did his laundry and went to bed. He said he awoke shortly before 1:30 a.m. because he realized the closet door was closed and Cincotta always wanted it open, Brenneman said, though he hadn’t realized that while he was home all night. Her body was cold to the touch, Johnson told police.

Johnson, then 36, was questioned throughout the morning hours of Aug. 22, then went home. Later that day, after visiting Cincotta’s parents’ home in Maryland, he spotted her missing car on the shoulder of Interstate 295 in the District. “They’re going to think I did it because I found the car,” Johnson told Cincotta’s son, Kevin Cincotta, at the time.

On Aug. 23 and Aug. 24, Johnson was questioned by Brenneman, Carrig and Det. Romie Holmes, who the video shows hooked Johnson up to a polygraph machine. Holmes repeatedly asked Johnson whether he was involved in Cincotta’s death, and Johnson repeatedly denied it. Police said Johnson failed the “lie detector” test.

The results of a polygraph exam are not admissible in court, but Wheat ruled that the video of the exam itself could be shown to the jury.

Holmes and Brenneman can be seen in the videos pressing Johnson to tell them the truth. Finally, on both Aug. 23 and 24, he made statements about seeing images of himself arguing with Cincotta, which he called “a vision.” He said that he lowered his hands during an argument and hit Cincotta on the neck, knocking her into the desk. He said he checked for a pulse and found none.

Meanwhile, Kevin Cincotta and a private investigator, Pat Brown, focused on finding another suspect, a man who had taken a personal computer from Andrea Cincotta four weeks before her death. He had been working at Andrea Cincotta’s apartment complex, and when she asked if his company took discarded computers, he said no, but he would take it for himself.

She gave a man a computer. Police say her fiance hired him to kill her.

That man was Bobby Joe Leonard. And in 2000, he was convicted in Fairfax County of raping and attempting to kill a 13-year-old girl. He received a life sentence. Kevin Cincotta, convinced then of Johnson’s innocence, pushed the Arlington police to investigate Leonard.

Arlington police told The Post in 2002 they checked deeply into Leonard and there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him. Leonard told The Post then that he had nothing to do with Andrea Cincotta’s death, as did Johnson.

But in 2018, Arlington cold case detective Rosa Ortiz went to speak to Leonard in prison. Leonard confessed to killing Cincotta, and claimed that a White man he didn’t know, but suspected was Cincotta’s boyfriend, had called him and offered him $5,000 to commit the murder, according to the plea agreement entered in Leonard’s case.

In his guilty plea in July, Leonard said that he strangled Cincotta in her apartment and placed her body in the closet, but the $5,000 was not there. Leonard told authorities he took Cincotta’s car and abandoned it on I-295.

Ortiz continued to investigate, and last November an Arlington grand jury indicted both Leonard and Johnson. Leonard is expected to testify at Johnson’s trial, where his credibility — and Johnson’s — are likely to be critical issues for the jury.