Officer's killer sees plot to deny parole

August 03, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien and Dana Hedgpeth | Dennis O'Brien and Dana Hedgpeth,Sun Staff Writers

Terrence G. Johnson, convicted of killing a Prince George's County police officer in 1979, says state prison officials denied him parole in 1991 because they were overly concerned about the negative publicity that might accompany his release.

Lawyers for the Maryland Parole Commission say no one ever promised Johnson that he would be paroled before his mandatory release date, July 6, 1997.

Now, a hearing before Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr. could end tomorrow with a decision to release Johnson.

Johnson, 31, was 15 when he was charged with the murder of two police officers. He was convicted of the manslaughter of one officer and found not guilty of killing the other by reason of temporary insanity.

At yesterday's hearing, he asked Judge Duckett that he be released because of his prison record and because state prison officials had illegally conspired to deny him parole four times between 1987 and 1991.

"The parole commission has stacked the deck against Mr. Johnson," said Seth Greenstein, one of three Washington lawyers arguing for Johnson's release from the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup.

Lawyers for the Division of Correction argued that the Parole Commission acted within its authority each time it denied the former Bladensburg resident's parole request.

"One doesn't have a right to parole," said George A. Eichhorn III, an assistant attorney general. "How they make that call is their discretion."

Yesterday, Johnson's lawyers argued that political concerns by Division of Correction commissioners ensured their client was singled out and unfairly treated.

Mr. Greenstein said the parole commission routinely based its denials on Johnson's failure to obtain work-release. He said prison counselors recommended Johnson for work-release but top-level prison officials refused.

"Mr. Johnson's case became a political football, and the game they were playing was Catch-22," he said.

Elmanus Herndon, a former acting commissioner for the Division of Correction, said he approved a plan in 1988 that would have placed Johnson on work-release. Two years later, he denied the work-release after Prince George's County police officers publicly called for Johnson to remain behind bars.

"The media accounts certainly were a factor in that decision," Mr. Herndon said.

Johnson, dressed in a brown suit, appeared composed and articulate as he recounted his parole requests and his efforts to find out why he was turned down. He said he was sorry for the crime he committed.

"In my heart, there's great remorse for what happened. I'm sorry that those two officers died," he said.

Johnson said he earned his General Equivalency Diploma and a bachelor's degree in business from Morgan State University while at Patuxent Institute in the 1980s. He also earned fTC certificates for completing courses in barbering, carpentry, ceramics, word processing, data entry and office automation.

On the night of June 26, 1978, Prince George's County police stopped Johnson and his brother, Melvin, then 18, for driving their father's Plymouth with the lights off.

Police brought them to the Hyattsville police station for questioning in a theft case after finding a chisel, a tire iron and a sock with $29 in change in the back seat.

During his March 1979 trial, Johnson said he was handcuffed to a chair for about two hours before Officer Albert M. Claggett IV took him to be fingerprinted. He said that Officer Claggett beat him, and that he feared for his life when he grabbed the officer's gun and shot him. He shot Officer James B. Swart as he ran out of the room.

The jury of eight whites and four blacks convicted him of manslaughter in the death of Officer Claggett and found him not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in Officer Swart's death. He also was convicted of a handgun violation. He was sentenced to the maximum 25-year term for the offenses.

Johnson's lawyers say his exemplary prison record is being ignored and that the parole commission's denials are "vindictive and in retaliation" for his acquittal on first-degree murder charges.

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