Slaying raises doubts about bail system

December 19, 1993|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SOURCES: Court files, Maryland Division of Parole and Probation and state Medical Examiner's Office.Staff Writer

Derwin Johnson, a 25-year-old convicted crack dealer shot dead in a phone booth near his Northeast Baltimore home Dec. 8, was a murder suspect himself -- out on bail despite a rap sheet that included two drug convictions, an attack on a police officer and at least six probation violations.

Prosecutors and homicide detectives, as well as Mr. Johnson's neighbors, wondered last week what he was doing out on bail to begin with. Police had no idea he had been freed until witnesses in his upcoming trial for murder reported seeing him in their neighborhood.

The judge who freed him in a blur of cases in June insists that he wasn't aware of Mr. Johnson's criminal record when he granted him bail, calling it "one of those cases that gives a judge nightmares."

Mr. Johnson's family buried him Monday.

His death underscores long-standing questions over the propriety of granting bail to suspects in murder cases.

In the week that Baltimore broke its per-year homicide record, Mr. Johnson's case also illustrates just how strained the city's criminal justice system has become under the weight of 337 murders, a flood of drug defendants and an army of young men and boys charged with gun violations.

"The fact that this man was out on bail, especially with his record, was extremely unusual," said Assistant State's Attorney Denise Fili, who was preparing to prosecute Mr. Johnson on charges of killing one man and wounding another last summer.

"Obviously, prosecutors don't think any murder suspect should be allowed to walk around in public," she said. "And, obviously, judges don't always agree. But this guy had a history that spoke for itself."

A friend of the Johnson family put it more bluntly: "If the judge had kept him in jail, Derwin would be alive today.

"Here's a boy charged with murder who's been in all kind of trouble with the law in the past, and he comes walking right back into the neighborhood a few days after he got arrested. Something's not right there."

Mr. Johnson was charged June 17 with murder in the death of Donald Kidd and attempted murder in the wounding of Tyrone Thomas. He was freed the next day on $100,000 bond -- about one-fifth the typical bail for the few murder suspects who are granted bail at all.

Unemployed and living with his mother while he awaited trial, Mr. Johnson had been on the street less than six months when an unknown attacker ambushed him at the corner of 31st Street and Hillen Road.

Ten Black Talon bullets -- assault ammunition designed to inflict massive injuries -- slammed into him, killing him almost instantly as he stood in a phone booth on a Wednesday night in Northeast Baltimore.

A toxicology report found no evidence that Mr. Johnson had been using drugs at the time, said Dr. John E. Smialek, state medical examiner.

"It would appear that he may have been trying to clean himself up," Dr. Smialek said.

Mr. Johnson had failed repeatedly in the past, court records show.

Convicted in March 1990 of dealing 20 bags of crack cocaine, he was sentenced to three years of supervised probation.

But over the next 19 months, urine screening caught him time and again using cocaine and heroin. He was thrown out of at least three publicly funded drug-treatment programs for failing to stay clean.

Then, in September 1991, a patrolman spotted Mr. Johnson allegedly selling cocaine to another man. When the officer ordered him to turn out his pockets, Mr. Johnson threw a punch and tried to tear the officer's pistol out of his holster -- a move that could have given the officer justification for shooting him.

Finally subdued, Mr. Johnson was found to be carrying three more bags of crack cocaine.

Sentenced to three years for the combined crimes and probation violations, Mr. Johnson volunteered for an accelerated "boot camp" sentence that put him back on the street in six months with another year of supervised probation.

But Susan Kaskie, assistant director of the state Division of Parole and Probation, said Friday that the state Parole Commission issued a warrant for Mr. Johnson's arrest a short time later when he failed to honor the terms of his release.

Eight months after he completed his sentence, Mr. Johnson was charged in the attack on Mr. Kidd and Mr. Thomas. Citing the aggravated nature of the crime, prosecutors opposed his release on bail.

District Judge Norman E. Johnson, who is not related to the suspect, granted bail anyway.

"There's nothing to hide here," Judge Johnson said. "But I really can't comment intelligently because I don't remember the case. You have to consider the stress we're under, the caseload, the nonstop hearings.

"On the face of it, this sounds like one of those cases that gives a judge nightmares. But I can assure you that I did not have all the information in front of me that you do now, or I would obviously have given it a harder look before I gave him bail."

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