Judge gives killer hope for parole

August 04, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

The judge hearing Terrence G. Johnson's request to be released from prison has delayed his decision, but his warm praise yesterday for the convicted killer has family members optimistic that his parole is imminent.

Johnson, 31, who was convicted of killing a Prince George's County police officer in 1979, wants to be freed before his mandatory release date, July 6, 1997.

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr. would not explain why the hearing won't be continued until Aug. 12, and lawyers for both sides refused to comment.

But Judge Duckett told a courtroom packed with about 40 of Johnson's supporters that he was impressed by Johnson's courtroom demeanor and sincerity -- and then shook Johnson's manacled hand as he was led down a courthouse hallway under guard.

"I spent a lot of time looking squarely at Mr. Johnson and having him looking squarely back at me," said Judge Duckett, who was the county state's attorney for 15 years before he was appointed judge in 1988.

"This man has strength, strength of purpose, strength of character, strength of dignity, and I admire him very much," Judge Duckett said. "This man is going to make it, and boy, do I wish him luck."

The remarks brought praise and optimism from Johnson's supporters and criticism from his opponents, including relatives of the dead officers.

"I think he's [Judge Duckett] just eating up all the publicity," said Rita Swart, whose son was one of two officers shot by Johnson in 1978.

But Johnson's relatives said they were impressed by the judge's apparent open-mindedness.

"That is a wonderful man there," said Cynthia Green, Johnson's sister, as she watched Judge Duckett walk from the courtroom toward his chambers.

"I think he understands. I think he feels the same way I feel," said Robert Johnson, the petitioner's father.

In two days of hearings so far, Johnson's lawyers have questioned state parole commissioners about why they denied Johnson parole four times between 1987 and 1991.

They argue that he is being singled out unfairly by parole commissioners and by state prison officials, who are overly concerned about the notoriety of the case and the criticism they would get if he were released early.

Those concerns led state authorities to refuse to free Johnson under any terms, which violates his rights to due process and equal protection, his lawyers say.

In testimony yesterday, Parole Commissioner Daniel D. Zaccagnini acknowledged that an Evening Sun column by a woman whose son's killer was up for parole was included in Johnson's parole file and was probably reviewed by the commissioners before they denied Johnson's fourth parole request in 1991.

Mr. Zaccagnini said he had "no idea" why the letter was in Johnson's file but admitted the commissioners follow news reports about the parole commission closely.

"We clip when we can, every article about inmates in our system," he said.

As had been the case in Johnson's 1979 trial, the issue of race was raised yesterday.

Commissioner Maceo Williams conceded that a month before the commission denied Johnson parole in 1991, it granted conditional parole to William Isaacs, who had been convicted of second-degree murder, kidnapping and auto theft for his role in a killing spree that left a Cumberland teen-ager and a family of six in Georgia dead in 1973.

Under questioning by Johnson's lawyers, Mr. Williams denied that Mr. Isaacs was granted the conditional parole because he was white and that Johnson was denied his request because he is black.

"Absolutely not," said Mr. Williams, who is black.

At his 1979 trial, Johnson testified that he was abused by the two white officers before he shot them.

According to testimony, Johnson, then 15, and his brother, Melvin Johnson, then 18, were stopped by Prince George's County police June 26, 1978, for a traffic violation and brought to the Hyattsville police station for questioning in a theft case.

Johnson testified that he was handcuffed to a chair at the station for about two hours before he was taken into a fingerprinting room by Officer Albert M. Claggett IV, who started beating him.

He said that he was in fear for his life when he grabbed the officer's gun and shot him. He shot Officer James B. Swart as he ran from the room.

The officers' friends and relatives dispute that account, but Johnson's testimony struck a chord in Prince George's County's black community, where the police force in the 1970s was 90 percent white and had a reputation for being racist and hostile toward minorities.

The jury of eight whites and four blacks convicted Johnson of man slaughter in the death of Officer Claggett and found him not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in the death of Officer Swart.

But he also was convicted of a handgun violation and Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Jacob S. Levin sentenced him to the maximum 25-year term for the offenses.

Mrs. Swart, who came to court Tuesday with her husband, Edgar Swart, said yesterday that she still misses her son, who was 25 when he was killed.

Mrs. Swart said that her son's death and Officer Claggett's death seem to be forgotten in the court proceedings.

"It seems like they're not important, only he's [Johnson] important," she said.

She said she was not optimistic about how Judge Duckett might rule next week.

"These judges can be wrong, too, you know," she said.

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