A death in Aberdeen

March 06, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Some cheering was reported in Prince George's County police circles last week when the news of Terrence Johnson's death arrived, and who can wonder why?

Terrence Johnson was a cop-killer who had been twice saved from the full consequences of his actions. He was saved first by his youth, next by his intelligence and charm. A factor each time was the patronizing idea so pervasive in the courts of our day that because he was black, he deserved leniency and assorted second chances.

Police officers are used to seeing the justice system pulling its punches for certain politically-favored defendants, while at the same time subjecting those who work in law enforcement to the flip side of the same blatant double standard. And the cops, whatever their race, they just don't seem to have learned to like it.

At 16, Terrence Johnson, in what was certainly a moment of panic, grabbed a policeman's firearm while he was in custody and fatally shot two officers. In a less enlightened time and place that crime would have earned him the death penalty. Instead, it made him a cause, winning him a moment of spurious martyrdom and a sentence of 25 years.

He didn't even have to complete that, because well-meaning people -- one lawyer and one judge in particular, along with many others -- kept taking an interest in him. It would be nice to be able to say his own good conduct played a part, but that would be less than accurate; at one point he had a year added to his sentence after he assaulted a guard in the penitentiary in Hagerstown.

In any event his advocates persisted. He won early release, and was admitted to law school. He was photographed wearing suits. His sponsors congratulated him, and implicitly themselves, upon his rehabilitation. Then he dropped out, robbed a bank in Aberdeen, and committed suicide when the robbery went sour.

As the families and friends of the victims surely felt, and as other police officers did too, his termination was better late than never. There's certainly broad agreement that in pulling the trigger for the last time Johnson performed the first and only public service of his 34 years on earth.

That's not to say there wasn't a tragic element to his death, just as there was to his life. Not only did he leave those who had defended him and intervened for him with egg on their faces, but he made it more difficult for other young defendants to earn special mercies such as those he received.

At every Maryland parole hearing, for a while anyway, the people making the decisions are going to have Terrence Johnson on their minds. Because they're human beings, that will probably make them more conservative in their rulings, and as a result some defendants will stay in jail who would otherwise have gone free.

Whether that's good or bad is a philosophical question, ultimately unanswerable but deserving of an energetic debate which this would be an appropriate time to renew. For the Johnson case underscores with exceptional clarity the three disparate, often conflicting considerations involved in sentencing violent criminals.

In no particular order -- society's priorities change with the times -- these are rehabilitation, retribution and restraint. One seeks to make criminals into good citizens, one seeks simply to punish them, and one seeks to prevent them from doing further damage.

Until he went to Aberdeen, Terrence Johnson was a walking billboard for the rehabilitators. Look, they could say, a teenage criminal has become an educated, upstanding young man. How tragic it would have been had he been executed after his youthful mistake.

Conversely, had he taken other lives in the course of the Aberdeen robbery, there would have been understandable outrage that he had been released early -- or at all. Not for the first time, the parole process would have looked as though it had blood on its hands.

In retrospect, Johnson's initial sentence of 25 years was light but, considering his youth, not altogether unreasonable. What was unreasonable, especially considering his violent behavior in prison, was his premature release. It was due to luck and nothing more that the only life that this bad decision cost was Terrence Johnson's own.

The rehabilitation of violent offenders is a nice idea, but its track record isn't very good. What happened in Aberdeen was a cold reminder that social alchemy isn't any easier than the chemical kind.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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