It was a headline on the Baltimore police union Web site guaranteed to grab the attention of law enforcement: "Cop Killer Seeking Release."
The fraternal lodge urged its more than 3,000 members pack Room 236 at the Mitchell Courthouse on Wednesday to support their brother in blue and demonstrate their anger over a bid for freedeom by a man convicted of killing a city officer and wounding another in April 1970.
Bailiffs reserved the front two benches for police.
Lt. Col. Michael J. Andrew put on his full-dress Class A uniform, grabbed his civilian aide and walked up to the courthouse on Calvert Street. Friends of the suspect, Jack Johnson, now 60, filled not only the available seats but spilled into the jury box.
The two benches for the cops were empty.
Gradually, a few other officers, most of them long retired, showed up. So did a union representative. A lieutenant and a sergeant strolled in late, along with a veteran homicide detective. Andrew, on the force 26 years and once fired - and later reinstated - for speaking his mind in public, quickly grew angry.
"I can't believe we've lost our way," Andrew said. "If we can't back a fellow cop, then I don't know anymore. If we have hamburgers and hot dogs at the FOP lodge, you can't find a place to sit. But yet here's a convicted murderer of a Baltimore police officer who ambushed a cop and damn near killed another one, and we just go about business as usual. We have a convicted murderer who is about to get out of jail and we can't even fill a bench."
Andrew plans to admonish officers at the next lodge meeting - cop to cop, not "commander beating up on cops."
Johnson was one of three members of the Black Panther organization who fired a combined 45 bullets at officers Donald Sager, who was 35, and his partner, Stanley Sierakowski, then 42, as they sat in their patrol car on Myrtle Avenue writing a domestic violence report. According to trial testimony, the shooters targeted the officers simply to kill cops. Sager died and his partner was wounded.
He was sentenced to life in prison plus 15 years in 1972, but won the right to have his sentence modified after the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial judge erred by not considering that part of the sentence could be suspended.
Johnson's attorney, Gary Bair, argued on Wednesday that his client has led an exemplary life in prison, earned a college degree and held jobs outside the prison until work release for lifters was ended. "Given all that he has done, isn't it fair that he be released before he dies?" Bair said in an interview.
Assistant State's Attorney Don Giblin, head of the homicide unit, argued against an early release after conferring with his boss, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "We do not believe cop killers should get out of prison," she said through a spokeswoman. "His life sentence should mean life."
Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who is retired but still hears cases, agreed that Johnson can go free soon. He modified the sentence to life with all but 45 years suspended. With credits earned through the state prison system, Johnson could walk out of prison in time to celebrate his 62nd birthday in 2011.