Wails and lamentations Somewhere today, a mother mourns a senseless death

March 16, 1997|By Harry S. Johnson

TWO RECENT EVENTS have caused me to contemplate how absurdly diverse events can ultimately be reduced to common features.

On Feb. 27, Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto, 40, was sentenced to three years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment for the shooting death of Preston Barnes.

On the same day, in Harford County, the troubled and troubling life and times of Terrence Johnson, 34, came to an end by his own hand, after a botched bank robbery. In each instance, mothers are left to cry, and friends left to ask, why?

The Pagotto case was a source of community outrage. After being stopped for a traffic violation, Barnes was killed when Pagotto's gun discharged. Some argued that the city state's attorney only filed the charges in response to potential political fallout. Police, on the other hand, felt under siege. How could they ever perform their jobs if split-second decisions would later put them at risk of years in jail? If the police are going to fight the war on drugs, they cannot go into the battle unarmed. At times, the loss of life seemed almost secondary in this drama, as politics became as important as justice.

Until the guilty verdict, the passage of time had dimmed the focus in this case. There were no protesters outside the courthouse, claiming that the rights of the victim had been denied. Things changed after the verdict and sentencing. Police union officials went on the predictable radio shows to rail against the verdict and sentence, not focusing on the fact that a life had been lost. One union official described the dead man as a "convicted drug dealer." Whether the statement was true or not, it seemed highly inappropriate and insensitive to the family of the dead man, and to the community. And the mothers still cry.

Travel back in time to 1978 and the beginnings of the tragic case of Terrence Johnson. He was 15 years old when he shot and killed two Prince George's County police officers in the Hyattsville police station. Johnson claimed that he was beaten after his arrest on a petty theft charge and, fearing for his life, grabbed an officer's gun and fired.

A jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter in connection with one officer's death and acquitted him by reason of temporary insanity in the other, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He spent 17 years - half his life - behind bars.

The case confirmed the worst fears of those African-Americans in Prince George's County who believed that the police force there often brutalized and harassed them.

As a freshman at the University of Maryland College Park in 1972, I had been advised to be wary of the Prince George's County police. I had been told that they made a game of giving black students a hard time. Surprisingly, this advice came from my dorm resident assistant, who was white. Set against this backdrop, it did not take much to convince some that Johnson's beating allegations were plausible.

The political fallout from the case was overwhelming. The case increased cries from the black community about the insensitivity of the then-Prince George's state's attorney, and helped begin the end of his elected career. Police officers felt under siege and demanded that the killing of a policeman be dealt with severely. The police discounted the history attributed to them and argued that justice could not be sidetracked by allegations or fears of mistreatment based on race. The community was torn by the resulting trial and sentencing. Johnson's beating allegations were denied by the police and many in the community who felt that justice had not been served. After all, lives had been lost. Shouldn't the person responsible pay the ultimate price? For the families involved, the tears still fall, the mothers still cry.

Johnson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound moments after an Aberdeen bank was robbed, police said. The shooting came as officers closed in on the bank. Johnson's brother, an alleged accomplice, was arrested near the bank and charged with bank robbery.

Terrence Johnson's staunch supporters believed that he had been rehabilitated. He was going to law school, he was speaking to groups about the change in his life and he had options for books and movie deals. Somehow, with all of that, he found himself in Harford County, putting a gun to his head. His strongest supporters could only ask, why? Some might say that justice finally prevailed. I can't help but think, however, that somewhere a mother cries.

The irony of all of this is that, as with most things in our culture, race played a prominent role. Terrence Johnson was an African-American and the police officers white. Preston Barnes was African-American and Stephen Pagotto white. A white Prince George's County prosecutor handled the Johnson case, a black city state's attorney prosecuted Pagotto.

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