Man seeks freedom in youthful crimes

March 28, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

A file photo of Terrence Johnson in yesterday's editions of The Sun should have been credited to the Prince George's Journal.

The Sun regrets the error.

At 31, Terrence G. Johnson has spent most of his life behind bars for killing two Prince George's County police officers -- and many people bitterly disagree over whether he belongs there.

This week, Johnson, who was convicted in 1979 of manslaughter and a handgun violation in a racially charged trial, will ask an Anne Arundel County judge for his freedom.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The hearing Thursday before Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr. raises the question of whether someone convicted of manslaughter when he was 15 should still be in prison 16 years later.

And it is expected to reopen many of the emotional wounds inflicted June 26, 1978, when Johnson grabbed Officer Albert M. Claggett's service revolver in the Hyattsville police station and shot him and Officer James B. Swart.

"I just can't believe they have all these roads open for them to appeal," said Rita Swart, 70, Officer Swart's mother. "They've always talked about the pain he has of being stuck in prison. If you only knew what life was like for the two families."

Hundreds of prison inmates petition the Maryland courts for release each year. But Johnson, who completed a 10-year sentence for the manslaughter charge and still is serving the 15-year maximum for illegal use of a handgun, is unusual.

He has three lawyers and the support of a U.S. congressman. His case has inspired candlelight vigils, news conferences and petition drives. Supporters and those adamant that he should remain behind bars until his Jan. 27, 1998, release date have organized letter-writing campaigns.

"I think Terrence Johnson has paid for his actions," said U.S. Rep. Albert Russell Wynn, a Democrat who represents the newly formed Prince George's County district where Mr. Johnson lived.

Supporters argue that it is only because two police officers died, and police officers have flooded the parole board with letters, that Johnson has been denied parole four times.

Mr. Wynn, who wrote to Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1991 to recommend Johnson's release, said Johnson has served long enough.

"Remember, this was found not to be premeditated, first-degree murder. It was found to be manslaughter. They're totally different things," said Mr. Wynn, a lawyer.

Johnson has served six years of the handgun sentence, which his supporters say is more than most inmates serve who are convicted of the same charge.

He also has a one-year sentence to serve stemming from a 1980 assault on a guard in a dispute over whether his mother could visit him.

Johnson's opponents argue that releasing someone responsible for the deaths of two police officers would send a message that the criminal justice system is too soft on crime.

"Our contention is if any prisoner can do this, get released this way, then why even have a parole board," said Prince George's County Police Lt. Philip Constantino, vice president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89 in Upper Marlboro, where the slain officers' photos hang on the walls.

"A lot of people are pretty anxious to see that he serve out his full sentence," he said.

Lt. Richard Poma, who with Officer Claggett stopped Johnson and his brother in their father's car on the night of the shootings and brought them into the station to question them about a petty theft, said the incident still haunts him.

"I blamed myself for years over this," said Lieutenant Poma, now a supervisor at the Oxon Hill station. "One thing I know, that boy ruined a lot more than two lives when he fired off those shots."

Almost everyone familiar with Johnson's case says it is a disturbing reminder that the criminal justice system is far from perfect.

"This case was different than any other trial that I've ever been involved in," said Arthur A. Marshall Jr., the former Prince George's County State's Attorney who prosecuted Johnson.

"The verdict really bothered me. It bothered a lot of people," he said.

Stopped for headlights

Johnson was riding with his 18-year-old brother, Melvin Johnson, in their father's Plymouth Volare June 26, 1978, when Officers Claggett and Poma stopped them for driving without headlights along a two-lane highway in Bladensburg. They were brought into the station for questioning after the officers, who had been notified of a burglary at a nearby laundromat, noticed a chisel, a tire iron and sock with $29 in change in the back seat.

What happened at the station remains in dispute, but what is certain is that the trial and the sentencing had racial overtones.

Johnson, who is black, testified that he was abused by the two white officers he ended up shooting. Officer Swart handcuffed him to a chair and interrogated him for about an hour before Officer Claggett dragged him into a fingerprinting room and began beating him up, he said.

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