He killed a cop amid racial fears--and it's time to give him chance

Wiley Hall

November 22, 1990|By Wiley Hall

Terrence G. Johnson had been composed throughout the interview, articulate and comfortable, almost laid back.

He sat at ease in his chair, legs stretched out, one arm draped casually over the side. He wore a hooded sweat shirt and jeans. He looked me in the eye as he spoke -- not challengingly, not defiantly, but like an intelligent man at peace with himself.

But then I asked him what it was like, how it felt, to have spent his formative years in prison.

"How does it feel?" Johnson repeated slowly. He stopped then, and leaned forward, biting his lip. He clasped his hands and studied them.

We were in a small eating room deep inside the Baltimore City Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison on Greenmount Avenue. Seconds passed. A refrigerator in the corner began to hum. More seconds passed.

"I don't know how to find the words to actually describe what I feel," he said at last. "Tears come closest, I guess."

"Tears?"

"Yeah, tears. You know, not real words but crying describes how I feel.

"You don't know what it's like to know you're 27 years old, almost 30, and to have never been to a fraternity party," he continued.

"I had just gotten my driver's license when I went in, but to have never really driven around, or bought my first car. To never get to graduate from high school with your friends, or to have gotten my own apartment. I can never get those things back and that's, that's . . . well, that's something that I just can't describe in words."

Johnson was 16 when he went to prison, a slender, curly-haired youth described in press accounts as small for his age.

His was an especially dramatic case, a racially divisive case, a celebrated case that dominated the headlines in suburban Washington for weeks on end: He was convicted in 1979 of manslaughter for the shooting death of a Prince George's

County police officer.

What! He killed a cop!

Well, two cops actually.

Late one night, in the summer of 1978, somebody broke into a coin box at a Hyattsville-area apartment laundry room. Shortly afterward, Prince George's County police stopped Johnson and his older brother and brought them in for questioning.

Johnson claimed the arresting officer took him into a small room and began to beat him up. Fearing for his life, he said, he managed to pull the officer's service revolver out of his holster and shoot him in the abdomen. After that, Johnson said, he blanked out.

Police claimed Johnson, who was then 15, was alone with the police officer in a small fingerprinting room, when suddenly and for no apparent reason he snatched the officer's service revolver and shot him. He then rampaged through the station, eventually killing a second officer before he was subdued.

Police charged the youth with the murders of Officer Albert M. Claggett IV, 26, who left behind a wife and two small boys, and Officer James B. Swart, 25, a bachelor. Both men were the sons of former police officers. Both men were highly regarded by their peers.

But Johnson's tale of police brutality struck a chord in the county's black community.

While the county Fraternal Order of Police raised money for Claggett's widow and children, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People raised money for Johnson's defense fund.

Johnson's trial was marked by scuffles between blacks and whites outside the courtroom. Meanwhile, on the inside, the air reverberated with hyperbole.

Prosecutors described the youth as "arrogant and explosive," a "time bomb waiting to explode."

Johnson's lawyers painted him as a frail youngster fighting for his life on that summer night against racist, brutal officers.

Prosecutors noted that Johnson was once suspended from school for fighting. Defense lawyers noted that he had a clean juvenile record at the time of his arrest, was a member of his junior high school wrestling team and had played the Grinch in a school Christmas play.

When a jury of four blacks and eight whites found Johnson guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter for the death of Officer Claggett and not guilty by reason of insanity for the death of

Officer Swart, county police staged a brief protest demonstration. Johnson's supporters sang civil rights songs.

Even the presiding judge took sides. After handing Johnson a 25-year sentence, the maximum penalties for the manslaughter and a handgun conviction, Judge Jacob S. Levin remarked regretfully that Johnson was lucky police officers did not kill him during his rampage.

Because he killed a cop!

Yes, and now, 12 years have passed.

From prison, Johnson has earned his G.E.D., an Associate of Arts degree from Anne Arundel Community College and a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Morgan State University, where he finished with a 3.6 grade-point average.

He says he regrets the shootings and feels especially sorry for Officer Claggett's widow and children.

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