No real sense of justice

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

July 30, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Negative message!

You wanna talk about a negative message? Keeping Terrence G. Johnson in prison sends the negative message to end all negative messages.

Yet yesterday, the Maryland Parole Commission said it voted unanimously to keep Johnson in prison for another eight years specifically to avoid this very thing.

"Our bottom line," said Paul J. Davis, commission chairman, "was that with violence on the rise in the community, we'd be sending a negative message out, and so the unanimous decision was to refuse parole."

Johnson, now 27, was convicted of manslaughter in the 1978 shooting death of Prince George's County police Officer Albert M. Claggett 4th.

So, I suppose Davis is saying the commission wanted to make it clear that it is not OK to kill cops in Maryland. And, he's right. It would be tragic, indeed, if the commission ever suggested by word or deed that it condoned killing cops.

But let's consider Johnson's case carefully. He was not a violent criminal when the state charged him with the first-degree murder of two Prince George's police officers. In fact, he was a scrawny, baby-faced, 15-year-old at the time, an average student in school with no criminal record.

He wasn't even a criminal suspect when police brought him and his brother into the Hyattsville district police station in June 1978. Police wanted to question his older brother about vandalism to a laundromat coin box. They held young Terrence there to wait for his parents.

But at some point that summer evening, according to testimony during his trial, young Terrence started mouthing off and Officer Claggett dragged him into a small fingerprint room and began to beat him up. In a blind panic, and fearing for his life, young Terrence grabbed the officer's service revolver and shot him in the stomach.

Afterward, he burst from the room, firing the gun wildly, fatally shooting a second officer, James B. Swart. The teen was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and handgun violations.

The case polarized an already divided community. Young Terrence is black. The two officers were white. At the time of the shooting, blacks had made several allegations of police brutality against Prince George's police, which the white power structure angrily denied.

There were even allegations of a "Death Squad" of detectives, operating out of the same Hyattsville station, that used undercover agents to recruit black teens for robberies then shot the youths during the commission of the crime.

Despite this racially charged atmosphere, members of a predominantly white jury apparently accepted young Terrence's story. They found him guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter in Claggett's death and not guilty by reason of insanity in the death of Swart.

So, on the record, Johnson is not a typical, cold-blooded killer. The head of the parole board conceded as much yesterday.

"Yes," said Davis, "my sense was that, at the very least, the jury believed he [Johnson] at least feared he was going to be attacked by the first officer, and that he was smacked, and that that's when he grabbed the officer's gun."

The chairman also conceded that Johnson has been a model prisoner, earning high school and college diplomas in prison, and that at least half of the mail on this case -- from both blacks and whites -- has strongly urged that he be paroled.

But all of that meant nothing compared to the commission's determination not to send that "negative message."

"The commissioners determined that the good -- his institutional progress, his academic achievements -- didn't outweigh the bad," said Davis, "the bad being our perception of the impact of the crime on the community. And not just in P.G. County, but in Maryland and beyond."

"Who do they think they're fooling," countered attorney Charles Ware, who represented Johnson during the parole process. "This isn't about violence in the streets. It is a constitutional issue: How far can a citizen go when he is being beaten to death by people in authority?

"The parole board is telling black folks the system will not do the right thing for them, that if you want justice, you have to take to the streets and fight for it."

This, you will agree, is a negative message. It is a message that says the board is ruled more by politics than justice.

It is a message that stinks.

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