The Terrence Johnson story A life of symbolism: Parolee's death signified nothing but his own flaws and frailty.

March 06, 1997

ONE MUST BE WARY of reading too much into the death of Terrence Johnson.

The mysterious circumstances of the crime that defined his life -- the fatal shooting of two Prince George's County policemen in 1978 -- did not become clearer when he put a gun to his head last week, apparently after robbing an Aberdeen bank. Johnson, who was just 15 when he shot the officers in an interrogation room, always claimed he had acted in self-defense after being beaten by members of a force with a penchant for racial hostility.

The community divided, roughly along racial lines. He became a symbol of racial injustice. In the end, even a mostly white jury refused to convict Johnson of murder, sending him to prison for manslaughter instead.

Johnson's defenders and despisers have argued all these years over whether he was a victim of racial prejudice or a brutal cop killer. They will continue to argue, to no avail. What happened in Aberdeen tells us nothing about what happened in 1978.

What happened tells us only that Johnson, when faced with the pressures of life outside prison, chose the wrong path.

He was paroled in 1995, and there is no reason to second-guess that decision. He served most of his 25-year sentence and, with one exception, was a model prisoner. Everything he did indicated he was ready to rejoin society. After his release, Johnson went to law school, gave motivational speeches, was loved and supported by neighbors, students and teachers. There was talk of books and movies. He became a symbol of hope and redemption.

But freedom had its burdens as well as rewards. The lawyer who treated him like a son reveals a man too eager and unready to enjoy the good things of life. Financial and personal problems caught up with him; he did not know how to cope. He should have turned to those who had been helping him down the good road. Instead, it looks as if he turned to a brother who veered toward a bad one.

Terrence Johnson is not a symbol. He was a complex man who tried to atone for and overcome a fatal mistake. Faced with adversity, he could not live up to the expectations some had for him -- indeed that he had for himself. He was not bigger than his own life.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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