New hearing in 1970 killing

Black Panther member was convicted of murder in shooting of city officer

Judge finds error in sentencing

July 11, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Drawing outrage from the city police union leader, a Baltimore judge granted a new sentencing hearing yesterday for a Black Panther member convicted 30 years ago of carrying out an ambush attack and killing a police officer.

Jack Ivory Johnson Jr., 53, who was sentenced in 1972 to life plus 15 years, could argue for release from prison at the new hearing, which is scheduled for Nov. 20.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy granted Johnson's request for resentencing, pointing to what he called an error by the original trial judge three decades ago.

Several police officers are planning to go to the November hearing, said Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police President Gary McLhinney, who was furious about the ruling.

He accused Johnson of using his Black Panther involvement as an excuse for gunning down Patrolman Donald T. Sager.

"That's nothing but a smoke- screen, that he was affiliated with the Black Panther Party," McLhinney said. "People are trying to make this some type of political issue. They executed this officer. ... This guy should never walk the streets again. He was involved in the killing of a police officer, and he needs to stay in jail the rest of his life."

At the new sentencing hearing, a judge will have the discretion to amend Johnson's sentence or uphold it.

Johnson was 21 when he and two other Black Panther members ambushed Sager, 35, and a fellow officer, Sgt. Stanley Sierakowski, in April 1970 as they sat in a police car writing a report in the 1200 block of Myrtle Ave.

Johnson later told police the killing was ordered by his superiors in a Baltimore branch of the Black Panthers.

"When Black Panthers are told they are to do a job, no questions are ever asked; they just have to go and do it," Johnson, a laborer, told police detectives at the time.

He added that his accomplices, James E. Powell and Marshall Edward Conway, did the killings.

Both are serving life sentences in Maryland prisons.

Johnson said he simply fired two gunshots in the air while the other two men riddled the car with bullets. He told a detective, "I didn't have the heart to kill the pig," according to testimony from the trial.

Sager was fatally shot in the head. Sierakowski was shot four times in the stomach and once in each arm, but survived.

Johnson, who is about 5 feet 10, bald and wears glasses, sat quietly in the courtroom during his hearing. He whispered to his attorney, Fred Warren Bennett, a few times during the procedure, but showed little emotion, other than a smile, after McCurdy announced his ruling.

Bennett argued that the judge who sentenced Johnson, former Baltimore Mayor J. Harold Grady, erred when he failed to say that he had the discretion to suspend part of Johnson's life sentence.

Bennett also argued that twice during sentencing, Johnson's attorney said that the judge could not reduce the life sentence, and Grady never corrected him.

"Had the court said on the record ... `I'm aware of my option to suspend a portion of the sentence, but I decline to do so,' we would not be here," Bennett said yesterday.

Judge defended

Assistant State's Attorney Mark P. Cohen argued that he didn't think Grady made a mistake. He also played down McCurdy's ruling, saying it wasn't unusual.

Within the past year, Cohen said he has prosecuted about eight to 10 cases in which a defendant sought a new sentencing hearing.

"In all but one of those cases that I can remember, the court has granted a new sentencing hearing," Cohen said. "At the new sentencing hearing, in most of the cases, they've kept the original sentence. There have been some that may have been reduced, but not with these types of circumstances."

Relatives of the two officers reacted to the news of the new sentencing hearing with mixed emotions.

Son's reaction

"I'm not buying the technicality," David Sager, 40, said in a telephone interview from New York. "I think this is nonsense. I'm not angry, but I'm concerned, and I don't think he should be eligible for a [new hearing]. I think they really need to go through the transcripts and find out what went on there, which I'm sure they're doing."

Sager was 7 when his father was killed. An only child, he now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., and is a field engineer for an ophthalmic company. His mother lives in Baltimore County.

Sierakowski died in January 1996 of heart complications. One of his sons, Stanley J. Sierakowski of Baltimore, said he didn't feel strongly about yesterday's outcome.

"The guy's done a lot of time, and he was a kid when he did the crime," said Stanley Sierakowski, 47. "My dad is gone, so it's not like he's going to be upset wherever he is right now. I'm probably the only member of the family that says, `Well, if that's the way it's going to be then that's the way it's going to be.' I'm not going to lose sleep about it, that's for sure."

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