I was struck by the differences between the cities of Rockville in Montgomery County and Upper Marlboro, the Seat of Prince George’s County. I now worked in Upper Marlboro; it was originally a sleepy Southern country town. Its Main Street was bounded by the County Courthouse on one end and a huge tobacco auction warehouse on its opposite end. It had rapidly grown to include the county administration office and aburgeoning residential population.
It was an easy commute and as I drove the last few scenic miles to the courthouse, I sometime thought about how far I had come since being bullied and whipped at the Dudley School, sleeping on Aunt Edith’s kitchen cot, and Frenchie telling me that I would be “somebody.” Now, I’m respected by my colleagues, deferred to in the courthouse, guaranteed a valued courthouse parking spot, and can bypass security. I was humbled and grateful. Sometimes I became melancholy and wished that Dad were alive; he’d be so proud of his son.
It was the height of the drug epidemic and I tried more than my share of violent crimes, particularly against women and children. Trial work is stressful and I never overcame my apprehension about trying a case. I dealt with it by preparation, preparation, preparation. I spent a lot of Sunday afternoons in my courthouse office, as did many of my hardworking colleagues, I was pleased when I was asked to oversee the office’s Child Abuse & Sexual Assault Unit (CASA) because it was an implicit acknowledgement of my trial skills and leadership qualities.
Two attorneys, one a criminal defense attorney, R. Kenneth “Ken” Mundy, the other a prosecutor, Robert “Bob” Dean, became my role models. Ken, famous for his defense of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry against federal drug charges, had a remarkable ability to connect with jurors. Bob, intense and disciplined, prosecuted a father who arranged the contract killing of his disabled child, his mother, and nurse. They were generous in sharing their wisdom with me.
Later, as less experienced attorneys and others dropped by to observe my own trials, I made it my business to discuss these cases with them afterward. Years later, in a chance encounter, Alison met an attorney who gave me high praise for mentoring her. I was thrilled both by the compliment and that it was independently shared with my daughter.
In about 1994, I successfully prosecuted a de-frocked Roman Catholic priest who, using his position of spiritual leadership at a Maryland school for the deaf, sexually molested countless adolescent boys in his care. The case attracted considerable media attention and coincided with my participation in ChildProof, a national trial advocacy workshop for experienced child-abuse prosecutors. As a result, I was invited to join the ChildProof faculty.
ChildProof was the most rewarding educational experience of my prosecutorial career. Once or twice a year, we would meet with 25 to 30 experienced could abuse prosecutors and work with them on improving their trial advocacy skills through lectures, workshops, and mock trials.
Once we held a workshop in Phoenix, Arizona on the challenges of interviewing child victims of alleged abuse. Since we obviously couldn’t interview these 5 to 8 year olds about sex, we decided to interview them on a more neutral subject, on their observations of live cartoon characters at the NBA Phoenix Suns’ training facility. We thought they might tell us about seeing Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Superman. No way. The results were disastrous. It was a supposedly simple exercise; interview children and see how many cartoon characters they could recall. The kids totally ignored the cartoon characters and were preoccupied — and disappointed – by the absence of their NBA basketball players.
I recalled the depth my own disappointment when, as a 10–year–old child, I toured, with my dad, “his” World War II aircraft carrier. There were no fighter planes. I shared that experience with my colleagues.
They understood. We all agreed that our training and experience had blinded us to the reality of the children, who’s interest in professional basketball players would always supersede cartoon characters. We learned that in interviewing kids, you must also factor in your own experiences as a child and use it. When interviewing kids, don’t leave your common sense at the door.
It is an important lesson for not only trial attorneys, but adult mentors.
Two cases from this time, stay with me. Each was very different from the other, but each illustrates an opportunity to do my duty despite adverse circumstances.
Janice (a fictitious name) and her male cousin, supported by their respective parents, moved from their family homes into an apartment together. Their relationship was entirely platonic. That is, until late one night, while Janice was in bed reading, her cousin burst into her room and tried to sexually assault. Janice fought him off, immediately returned home, and promptly reported the incident to the police who charged her cousin with attempted rape.
When I first met Janice, she was suffering from PTSD (Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder). She’d become a recluse, had quit her job, and couldn’t get herself to leave her home. I was convinced that she was indeed a victim, but I had to be straight with her — that the absence of physical evidence and the clean-cut appearance of the defendant made a guilty verdict look like a long shot.
We took the case to trial and, not surprisingly, the jury returned a not guilty verdict. Afterwards, I said to Janice, “I’m sorry.” Janice hugged me tightly, wept uncontrollably, and said, “You believed me. Thank you so much.” A year or so later, I received a thank-you note from Janice. She’d returned to the workforce and was occasionally leaving her home. It was the first and last such note I ever received as a prosecutor. I’d done my duty. I’d done the right thing. I’d done my best.
The second memorable case concerned Joe (also a fictitious name), a mid-level drug dealer who was kidnapped from Prince George’s Count by a rival gang, transported to the District of Columbia, and executed. A D.C. jury acquitted the three defendants of Joe’s murder. As a result, several of my colleagues urged me to drop the pending Maryland kidnapping charges because the evidence wasn’t strong. The kidnapping charges carried a 30-year maximum sentence, a charge equivalent to second degree murder. I disagreed with their assessment. Joe deserved justice. I would do my best.
At trial, the eyewitnesses were people whom, as I used to say, you might not want to bring home for dinner. Then there was Joe’s own drug-dealing background; I had to overcome any unspoken juror prejudices about that and also about the unsavory lifestyles of witnesses.
I faced the situation head on, and in my closing argument, I dramatically said, “When a play is written in hell, you don’t have angels for actors.” After a three-day trial, the jury found each of Joe’s kidnappers guilty. Joe’s mom became an advocate for a mom’s–for–murdered–children group. I was pleased that the verdict provided a degree of justice for Joe and his family.
Lesson learned. A just society is measured by its treatment of the least of its people. Joe was entitled to justice. I was true to my oath to enforce the law “without favor or prejudice.”
SCREENING & MAJOR CRIMES
As chief of our child abuse and sexual assault unit, my responsibilities included screening of each such arrest during the preceding week. I also participated in the weekly review of pending major cases. Twice I sat in on a death penalty review committee to decide whether to recommend that the State’s Attorney request the imposition of the death penalty upon a defendant. (Maryland has since abolished the death penalty.) My views in opposition to the death penalty were secondary to the statutory requirements and ensuring that mitigating factors were also considered. These were painful meetings for everyone; I was glad that all we had to do was recommend.
Each week, I met with the specialized team of county detectives who handled these child and sexual abuse cases to weigh their strengths and weaknesses and decide how best to proceed. Some were diverted to social services; others required further investigation. Still others were referred to the grand jury for possible indictment. Each case was emotionally charged. The special needs of the victim were a central consideration.
I sometimes found myself frustrated and angry at the inadequate investigation of some of these cases by smaller police departments. All too often their officers had no significant training or experience in handling sexual assault cases and overlooked important matters, such as securing the names of potential witnesses. Failure to do so in a memorable double murder case – where the room looked as if it had been painted in blood — resulted in our inability to prosecute a very strong suspect. The eyewitness was readily available, in custody, we later learned; the police had said they couldn’t find him.
The steady diet of these cases, many horrific in the violence visited upon our most vulnerable people, took a psychic toll on me and others. Occasionally, we resorted to a kind of gallows humor, too gross to describe here, making light of horror, but I generally internalized my feelings.
I decided that could no longer prosecuting these kinds of cases. I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I was burned out. I decided to focus on training prosecutors in trial advocacy and the diverting nonviolent, civilian-generated criminal cases for the last part of my career.
Prince George’s County had an ugly legacy of police violence against Black suspects.
In 1996, four county police officers, one of whom was Black, were charged with assault and misconduct for allegedly beating a defenseless, spread-eagled, burglary suspect, Black. But for another conscience-stricken Black police officer, who broke the Blue Code of silence, the incident would never have been reported.
When two seasoned prosecutors (one Black, the other Asian-American), refused the State’s Attorney’s assignment to prosecute the case, he summarily terminated them. I was assigned to the case. Their terminations and my assignment drew widespread media attention, including the front page of the Washington Post.
From an evidentiary viewpoint, it was a fairly straight-forward case. The victim had a broken scapula (shoulder bone); he was spread-eagled on a parking lot’s pavement. The police–officer witness, Black, was isolated by his peers; he received no department support in his isolation, and he was a soft-spoken, inarticulate witness. I successfully prosecuted the defendants in a lower court trial before a judge, but they were entitled to a new trial before a jury. I had to re-try the case.
The jury had a single Black juror and I knew I was facing an uphill battle when, during a defense attorney’s opening statement, a white woman juror, seated front row center, was nodding in agreement. Our victim/witness couldn’t identify the officers, nor was he expected to. The Black police officer-witness was unconvincing; he just wanted to get it over with and obviously regretted his initial disclosure. Our expert orthopedic surgeon was very unhappy about testifying in court about the broken bone (a common reaction among physicians) and did poorly under cross examination.
I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised by the jury’s not guilty verdict.
The hardest part was meeting with the media afterward. Measuring my words, I calmly gave the usual responses about the sanctity of our jury system, the presumption of innocence of the accused.
The truth? It’s bad form to criticize a jury in public. I was outraged. First, by that juror who had made up her mind before a scintilla of evidence was introduced. Second, at the county police department which literally left its courageous officer out to hang. The officer’s hands were soaking wet from nerves and fear each time we shook hands. He resigned his position shortly afterward to take a lower–paying police position out-of-state. I was also disappointed by our orthopedic surgeon who could not find time to meet with me for a final pre-trial meeting.
A lawyer has a duty to work for the betterment of his profession. I’ve always been concerned about diversity in the court and the equitable treatment of Black attorneys accused of malpractice. That’s why I decided to serve on both the Judicial Nominating Committee of the J. Franklyn Bourne Bar Association and the Peer Review Panel of the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.
Prince George’s County was, and remains, a majority Black county and it’s a political reality that without the endorsement of the JFB, a judicial candidate will not be appointed to a judgeship. Those of us on the judicial nominating committee took our responsibilities seriously.
A disproportionate number of Black attorneys, in Maryland and elsewhere, are solo practitioners and tend to over extend themselves with too many cases, making them high-risk for complaints by aggrieved clients. I’d like to believe that my participation on these attorney review panels helped ensure that such attorneys received a fair and balanced hearing.
RECONCILIATION IN THE FAMILY
Ma, getting along in years, had moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to live with my sister Eleanor and her husband and three children. It was a good move for Ma. She was revered by her grandchildren and connected with several Boston Jamaican transplants. She also did a bit of travel. I was able to see her in a more balanced light and quietly reconciled with her. I visited Eleanor and her at least twice a year; some colleagues even thought I was originally from Los Angeles, not Boston.
When Ma’s health declined, I visited her in a nursing home. We’d always take long rides up the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, after stopping at her favorite McDonald’s for a double order of Chicken McNuggets and a large Coke.
Once, well after Calvin’s death and, with her memory fading, Ma wondered whether she had had another son. Yeh, I told her, but he wasn’t perfect. Are you? We laughed heartily at the truth of that simple statement. No, I wasn’t perfect, either. None of us are. There was nothing left to be said. Our reconciliation was complete.
Ma died quietly on January 17, 1999, just five months short of her 100th birthday. Her last wish? Gather the family and a few close friends at a nice restaurant, have a sit-down dinner (absolutely no buffet), and tell nice stories about her. The night before her funeral, we did just that – in a quiet hillside restaurant overlooking Los Angeles. That night, I learned – for the first time – that Ma had quietly and modestly supported the education of many of my cousins financially and otherwise.
And, then, just as she planned, Louise Amelia (Dixon) Johnson was buried at Hollywood Hill Cemetery, near her two favorite performers, Liberace and Bette Davis.
A few years after his election as State’s Attorney, Alexander Williams was appointed to a federal judgeship by President Bill Clinton. He was succeeded by his deputy, Jack B. Johnson, who, in turn, was succeeded by Glenn F. Ivey. I continued to work for each of the two successors.
Glenn wanted to divert many civilian-generated criminal complaints from the judicial system. Many such cases, actually neighborhood disputes, really were not criminal. Yet they unnecessarily burdened an overextended criminal judicial system. Diverting such complaints might also save parties, primarily Blacks and Latinos, the expense of hiring attorneys.
Glenn assigned me to lead the diversion program. I thoroughly enjoyed this win-win-win assignment. I’m very much a people person and it gave me the chance to use both my social work and legal skills to help both parties. Many simply wanted a sympathetic non-judicial conference and to then move on with their lives.
Was there push back? Absolutely. Several defense attorneys, including an influential state legislator, decried the program, because it adversely impacted their income. To his credit, Glenn was not deterred by the legislator’s concerns. Citizen interests were his primary focus.
It’s never easy to walk away from a profession that’s been as rewarding as being a prosecutor was to me. It was my best job ever. I never felt as if I was going to work.
But there were other forces at play that were beyond my control and couldn’t be ignored. There was the weather. Clearing and navigating winter snowstorms never gets easier, only harder as one ages. Then there was traffic. Washington’s population and traffic congestion had exploded. Travel from point A to point B was always a hassle. I was becoming overextended by volunteer work in church with the JFB, and with accompanying some kids on a civil-rights pilgrimage. Then, too, my longstanding health issues were matters of growing concern.
I was humbled when, after I announced my intention to retire, the governor and both houses of the Maryland General Assembly each issued proclamations recognizing my public service. I appreciated the gestures, but they still couldn’t match my pleasure at receiving Janice’s thank–you note years earlier.
Connie and I owned a timeshare in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina and had visited Savannah, Georgia several times. It was time to think about moving to a warmer, more laid-back community, one where we could see the leaves grow all year long.
Fate stepped in. One day, I was in our local playground in Bowie, Maryland with our granddaughter, Troi Guilbeaux. I struck up a conversation with a woman who was supervising her own grandchildren. She introduced herself as Safi Ingram, a real estate agent from Savannah, Georgia.
Tags: duty, ethics, family reconciliation, police misconduct
Next: 27. Vulnerable
© 2021. Lloyd A. Johnson. All rights reserved.