The atmosphere of the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville, Maryland, was unlike the hustle and bustle of Capitol Hill and Howard University. It was slow–paced and relatively quiet and the courthouse was situated in the judicial plaza of a genteel, tree-filled suburban city. The drive to work was an almost-pleasant commute against traffic.
But the superficial calm of the courthouse masked its pathos. Over the years, I came to regard this courthouse and others as “Palaces of Pain.” I found that the pain and suffering of victims, defendants, families, and others to be silent but palpable throughout America’s courthouses. Lives are changed forever in court. The law exists for one reason — to resolve disputes. What greater dispute could there be than whether a person will find freedom or imprisonment? I was about to become a part of that process in this suburban Palace of Pain.
Following orientation, we four soon-to-be assistant state’s attorneys (ASAs) — Alex Foster, Debbie Black, Terri Turner (who is Black), and I — took our Oath of Office: “…to enforce the law without favor or prejudice.” Judge Irma Raker administered the oath in her courtroom before most of the other staff who would become our new colleagues. I was moved by the solemnity of the occasion as the bailiff sternly ordered, “All rise!”
Afterward, the elected State’s Attorney, Andrew F. “Andy” Sonner presented us with our ASA badges, and we were warmly congratulated and welcomed by our new colleagues, including three other Black ASAs: Michael Banks, Eric Johnson, and George Simms.
Andy Sonner had quietly increased the number of Black ASAs in his office by 40 percent. Our 10 percent was comparable to the county’s population.
Sonner had a lasting impact on me as a prosecutor. He had a gruff exterior, but generated loyalty in those who worked for him by his own loyalty. He set high ethical and professional standards that have served as a beacon for me as a prosecutor ever since.
Holding office since 1971, Sonner was highly regarded within the legal community and was politically influential throughout the county. An unabashed liberal for his time, he made no secret of his personal opposition to the death penalty and had hired the county’s first Black ASA, Samuel C. Hamilton. Sonner expected the office generally and ASAs in particular, to maintain a “healthy tension” with the police. They do their job. We do ours. We complement one another. We are not one. He held ASAs to a high standard and evaluated us on the quality of our work and professionalism, not on the number of convictions. Our job: To do justice. Do the right thing.
Andy, a lifelong resident of Montgomery County, had been stung by the historic Giles Brothers case. In 1961, three Black men were sentenced to death for the alleged rape of a white teenager in Montgomery County. The county prosecution knowingly used perjured testimony and withheld evidence from the defense that might have cleared these men. After the men spent six years on Maryland’s Death Row, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction.
The law requires prosecutors to provide defense attorneys access to any evidence that might mitigate the guilt or prove the innocence of a defendant. As a result of the Giles case, Andy directed that all police records, even the initial handwritten notes of a responding patrol officer, be made available to defense attorneys in a timely manner. It’s called Open File Discovery, going far beyond what the law required at the time He insisted that we treat all parties, including defendants, with respect. He insisted that we be prompt and, to the extent possible, accommodate the scheduling needs of private attorneys. These policies were cutting edge at the time.
A culture of trust existed between prosecutors and defense attorneys, many of who were office alumni. We fought vigorously in the courtroom, not outside. If I didn’t have a critical witness available, I would tell my opponent, not withhold that information in order to get a guilty plea from a defendant.
I was a vigorous advocate for my client, the State of Maryland. I was humbled each time I stood up in open court and formally introduced myself for the record, “Lloyd Johnson, for the State of Maryland.” No matter whether it was for a relatively minor shoplifting case or a horrific crime of violence, my feelings never changed.
Like all new prosecutors, I began my career trying misdemeanor cases — drunk driving, shoplifting, assault cases, and the like. It was like triage. Who was in court because they’d done something stupid, just this once, never to return? Who were the chronic, low-level, nonviolent offenders? Who were the more potentially serious offenders? Sometimes I’d try as many as five cases in a single day; once I did seven drunk driving cases in one day. Preparation, detail, and organization were critical skills.
Two cases, of those thousands of misdemeanor cases that I tried , stay with me to this day.
In one case, a woman was seated in the gallery holding her infant child. Nearby sat her boyfriend. The woman alleged that she’d been beaten by him. When the boyfriend’s case was called, he snatched the child from the woman’s arms, strode up to the judge, and using the child as a prop, requested a continuance to get an attorney. The judge granted the continuance, of course. I was stunned by the man’s courtroom behavior. It happened so quickly. But he was clearly entitled to time to find a lawyer.
Two weeks later, the defendant accosted the woman at her D.C. workplace and stabbed her to death. I thought about my brother stabbing his ex-wife in her workplace some forty years earlier. I was devastated and did a lot of second-guessing about that courtroom scene.
The second case concerned a defendant, a Black man, accused of possession of drugs. The two arresting officers, white and nicknamed “Batman and Robin,” had reputations for their aggressive policing. In reviewing the facts of the case with the officers, it was clear that they had violated the defendant’s constitutional rights. The stop, search, and seizure of the drugs were clearly illegal. They were outraged by my decision not to prosecute. I don’t think they were happy that a new prosecutor, Black no less, would question their actions. I held to my position, uncertain of what might follow.
What followed was that during lunch, a white colleague, Laura Chase, confided to me that the two officers had complained to her about my decision not to prosecute the case; she told the officers that she wholeheartedly endorsed my analysis. I was pleased by Laura’s transparency. When the officers tried to get me to reconsider their unlawful arrest, I told them I knew they had tried to go behind my back by talking with Laura.
Lesson learned. Andy was right. There should be that healthy tension between prosecutors and police. I knew then that this position was not just a job, it was my calling. The prosecutor has not only the power to prosecute, but also the duty not to prosecute when appropriate. As a Black prosecutor, I had prevented two white police officers from adding still another Black man to our criminal justice system. A small step, yes. But that’s power for good.
There was a downside to the high professional standards and collegial culture of the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO). Turnover among the assistant prosecutors was slow, limiting the opportunity to move from trying misdemeanors to prosecuting more serious felony cases. The county averaged “only” about 25 homicides annually and these were understandably assigned to the more senior, experienced prosecutors.
My thirst for felony trial work was intensified by two cases. One concerned Gregory Tu, a prominent local businessman. It was a high-profile, no-body murder case, prosecuted by my then-supervisor, John McCarthy. Tu’s wife mysteriously disappeared and a confluence of good police work, scientific and circumstantial evidence, and just plain luck, led to his arrest. John invited several of us to critique his powerful opening statement. I learned a lot. I learned the importance of not just what you say but also how you say it. How do you connect with 12 skeptical strangers? That’s what trial work is all about.
The second case was a horrific, double murder in which the defendant was the nephew of a prominent colleague of mine. I was second-chair, assisting the lead attorney at the trial and in that role delivered the opening statement and examined the mother of one of the victims. Thinking of my own then-incarcerated brother and his lasting impact on our family, I commiserated with the defendant’s uncle.
These two nauseating cases and the decency of the victims’ families cried out for justice and whetted my appetite for felony trial work. I was confident in my ability to effectively present my case to an impartial jury.
By now, Connie and I were living in Takoma Park, Maryland, a tree-lined, liberal bastion, immediately adjacent to D.C. For example, it was and remains, by law, a nuclear-free zone, no contracts with any companies engaged in the production of nuclear weapons. I was active in my neighborhood and, when my neighbors urged me to seek election to the City Council, I cleared it with Andy who didn’t reply directly but half-heartedly said, “It doesn’t help me.” Looking back, I realize that his unenthusiastic acquiescence belied his disapproval. I should have read him better. Maybe I didn’t want to.
I won the election overwhelmingly — against a white woman in a majority white district. But I paid a price professionally; I was buried trying garden-variety misdemeanor cases, while my colleagues progressed to more challenging felony assignments.
I was popular among my constituents and, had I chosen to do so, I would have been easily re-elected. But my dead–end courtroom assignments convinced me that I would have to choose between my community service and my professional advancement. I didn’t seek re-election.
Proudest accomplishment on the city council? Over the strong and well-funded opposition of the tobacco industry, we enacted a municipal ordinance barring the unattended sale of tobacco products to minor children. There were only two cigarette vending machines in the entire city, but our seemingly insignificant precedent had national implications. Our ordinance’s legality was upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals.
HISTORY, SERVICE, OPPORTUNITY
The history of Black attorneys and judges in suburban Maryland isn’t a pretty one. The first Black judge in Prince George’s County, J. Franklyn Bourne, initially couldn’t eat in many restaurants in the county seat, Upper Marlboro, Maryland, simply because he was Black. And so, to provide fellowship, service, education, and community support, these Black pioneers organized the J. Franklyn Bourne Bar Association. I was recruited by one of its members, Elizabeth Hewlett and soon became an active member. The JFB annual scholarship banquet is a must-appear event to this day and community service programs for Black community are an integral part of its existence.
One such program for Black kids drew together Black prosecutors like me plus public defenders, private practitioners, judges, and police officers. Its highlight was a role–playing exercise; it went from a vehicle stop by a police officer through the entire trial process. We Blacks were few in number, contributing to our candor, as we participated in the exercise.
Black police officers shared their apprehension about stopping a vehicle, especially late at night, not knowing the state of mind or circumstances of the driver or any passengers. Outstanding warrants? Drugs? The recent shooting and grievous wounding of a Black rookie police officer by a fugitive violent offender was fresh in everyone’s mind.
Len Bias, the 1986 first-round draft choice of the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics, died of a drug overdose two days after his selection. He was an acclaimed player from the University of Maryland and was a lifetime resident of Prince George’s County. He was a local hero.
The fallout from Bias’ death was swift, convoluted, and far-reaching. A part of that fallout was the historic election of Alexander Williams, Jr., a founder of JFB, as Prince George’s County’s first Black State’s Attorney. Alex had impeccable legal credentials, was highly admired in the community, and well-known about the courthouse. He was both an outsider and an insider. A great start for any elected official.
Alex’s election was fortuitous for me: Perhaps I could join his staff – and have the opportunity to prosecute serious criminal cases. When I cautiously approached him about that possibility, he was enthusiastic. Unlike Andy, Alex saw my having held elective office as a positive, offered me a significant salary increase, a choice of almost any assignment, and a lateral transfer.
I asked to be assigned to the office’s Child Abuse & Sexual Assault (CASA) unit. Why? I knew a few women who’d been sexually assaulted, but kept it to themselves for fear of disbelief by others, shame, and other reasons. I had had my own childhood experience with Mr. S in the community theater program. These were serious, challenging, and complex cases in which, sometimes, the existence of a crime was an issue. Because some of these sexual assaults involved acquaintances, some jurors were skeptical about whether or not a crime had even occurred.
These issues were outweighed by my confidence that my social work training, my life experiences, and trial skills combined to make me uniquely prepared for this new and challenging assignment.
I underestimated the toll of these cases on my psyche.
Tags: Alexander Williams, Andrew Sonner, J. Franklyn Bourne Bar Association., Takoma Park
Next. 26 Prosecutions and Reconciliation
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