A tearful reaction to release from prison

August 13, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

(TC Terrence G. Johnson and his father wept at the thought of freedom.

In a packed Annapolis courtroom, Johnson cried. His voice cracked as he begged forgiveness from God and the families of the two Prince George's County policemen he shot to death 16 years ago.

"It's agony to know you've killed a man," he told Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett.

The judge had been considering Johnson's case for a week. Johnson's lawyers had argued for early parole and an explanation of why he was denied parole in 1991.

On Thursday, the Maryland Parole Commission pre-empted Judge Duckett and announced that Johnson would be released Feb. 2 after serving 90 days of work release. He has lined up a job with Charles J. Ware, the lawyer who represented him in the 1991 parole hearing.

Mr. Ware said last night that Johnson has been offered a full scholarship to the Howard University School of Law.

Judge Duckett did, however, leave the case open until Feb. 2.

Now 31, Johnson was convicted of manslaughter in 1979 in the death of Officer Albert M. Claggett IV and found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in the death of Officer James B. Swart.

Johnson and his brother were stopped for a traffic violation June 16, 1978, then taken to the Hyattsville police station for questioning regarding a theft. Johnson testified that he struggled with Officer Claggett, grabbed his gun and fired it after the policeman beat him.

"I'll suffer for the rest of my life," Johnson said yesterday. "I can only hope the Claggett and Swart families can forgive me." The inmate's statement of remorse had little effect on Blanche Claggett, whose son was slain as Johnson fled the police station.

"I'd hoped he'd spend at least one more Christmas there," she said in a firm tone during a telephone interview from her home in Deltona, Fla.

"He took my son's life and took another nice policeman's life. I don't wish him anything good," she added. "He took something from me and lots of other people that cannot be replaced."

Rita Swart, whose son was the second officer shot, refused to comment.

Paul J. Davis, chairman of the seven-member Maryland Parole Commission, said Johnson's attitude changed the commission's mind.

"Even though he was refused parole, he continued to be the same kind of prisoner he was up to that point -- cooperative," Mr. Davis said. "He has served three more years of his sentence, and you look at those things."

The commission also considered that Johnson had earned a degree from Morgan State University and acquired various trade skills while in prison.

"Looking at what this individual has done in the past 16 years," Mr. Davis said, "we said that . . . It's time to let this young man go home."

He refused to comment on the court case, saying it was a "separate issue."

But in an interview yesterday afternoon, Judge Duckett said he met with Mr. Davis, Johnson's lawyers and two assistant attorney generals last Thursday.

"If I had released Johnson, the state would have appealed and he would have spent a lot more time in jail," Judge Duckett said. "For me to do anything I would have had to have found an overt abuse of the parole board's discretion."

When asked what persuaded him that Johnson was remorseful and rehabilitated, the judge removed his glasses, then turned an intense gaze on the questioner.

"On the first day in court I watched Johnson very closely," he said. "Eyeball to eyeball. My preliminary conclusions were that he had strength of character, strength of commitment."

The judge says his judgment of character isn't always on target.

"But it's as good a method as I ever had," he said. "I think what should have happened did happen. I think justice was served."

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