The judge behind the grand jury report

March 14, 1993|By Jay Apperson and David Michael Ettlin | Jay Apperson and David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writers

To understand Kenneth Lavon Johnson, the Baltimore judge who commissioned last week's controversial grand jury report blasting the local drug enforcement effort, you have to leave the big East Coast city and go back to the segregated South of lunch-counter sit-ins.

From there, you'd go halfway around the world to the Far East, where a black man who now notes that he "couldn't buy a hamburger in Mississippi" served his country during wartime as an Army lawyer. Your next stop would be in Washington, D.C., where this lawyer quit his job in the U.S. Justice Department because he refused to work for a "crook" like then-Attorney General John Mitchell.

You'd finally arrive in Baltimore, where this lawyer represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and won discrimination cases against the Bethlehem Steel Corp. and the city police and fire departments.

Where he used the 1982 city judicial race to address the failure of then-Gov. Harry Hughes to appoint a black to a vacancy on the city Circuit Court. Where he ran against three white incumbent judges -- and won.

In short, you'd have to look at the life of a self-described "country boy"who brought to the big city a willingness to confront his perceived wrongs.

In his most recent potshot at the status quo, the soft-spoken judge took on the criminal justice system by proxy -- placing his discontent in the hands of the 23 ordinary citizens who made up the May 1992 term of the Baltimore grand jury.

With an attack on unidentified lawyers, businessmen and bankers he said were involved in the crimes, the 55-year-old judge asked the panel to find out "why wholesale drug dealers are not being pursued and brought to justice by the criminal justice system."

The result was a grand jury report, made public last week, thatsharply criticized the city Police Department's drug

enforcement effort and called for an independent prosecutor to investigate it.

Predictably, the report angered and brought quick objections from city officials including the mayor, state's attorney and police commissioner.

But for Judge Johnson, the report was the much-awaited jury's answer to what he described as his "Paul Revere" warning, as in "Here come the druggies."

Why he did it

Lunch time doesn't arrive until almost 1:30 in the afternoon. Judge Johnson is about halfway through a day's docket that includes no fewer than 65 hearings for violation of probation.

He tells a reporter that The Sun has treated him unfairly because he is black. He says it would be "inappropriate" for him to talk about the grand jury report or even elaborate on a comment, made in a letter to the panel, that he is "in complete agreement with all the findings."

"The reason I did it was I saw what was happening and I wanted to find out why. I was concerned the system was only dealing with young street-level dealers," he says. "When I see a wrong, I try to right it. Naturally, the people who are doing the wrong are not going to be happy for that and I understand that.

"I hope all the public officials here in Baltimore City and Maryland understand my motive for what I did was public service rather than something personal. I consider myself a friend of Mayor Schmoke, of Police Commissioner Woods and State's Attorney Simms, and it was not directed at them at all but was directed at a problem I would like to see addressed, tackled.

"I think the average person in the street knows I'm correct in my charge and unfortunately our public officials are still in a state of denial," he says.

"The problem's geting worse, and one day very soon the drug lords will take over the country . . . by corrupting our public officials with drug money."

Yes, he says, he feels a little bit isolated. He's felt that way since he issued his charge to the grand jury last May.

"It's a very lonely position I'm in," he says between bites of a corned beef sandwich, but he adds: "It doesn't matter one iota. I've beenthere before."

He says he expected the reaction, and he expects it to get worse for him.

"I don't consider myself to be a crusader. I consider myself being blessed with the ability to determine right from wrong and the fortitude to adhere to the right. Just that simple," he says. "And over the years I've suffered mightily for that. If undeserved suffering is redemptive, I believe that I will be redeemed.

"I couldn't get appointed, for example. I had to run and it cost me money. If I had been quiet, I would've been appointed. I would never be considered for a high position in the Maryland judiciary.

"I've received death threats over the past several years and they've increased," he says. Asked why he's been threatened, he says: "Because of my job and who I am."

The man from Mississippi

Ken Johnson was born in Columbia, Miss., where he grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing. "I came off the farm. I picked cotton and plowed a mule," he says with pride.

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