How a Dallas District Attorney Reached Her ‘Nixon in China’ Moment
Faith Johnson’s recent indictment of a Mesquite police officer for shooting an innocent man follows years of work by community activists.
In 1973, 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez sat handcuffed in the front seat of a police squad car beside Dallas, Texas police officer Darryl L. Cain. Rodriguez and his 13-year-old brother had been accused of stealing $8 from a vending machine, and Cain had decided to use a game of Russian roulette to get the boys to confess. The officer opened the barrel of his revolver in front of Rodriguez’ brother David, who couldn’t tell if he was loading or unloading it. He then pointed the gun at Santos’ head and demanded the truth.
The first time Cain pulled the trigger, the gun didn’t go off. The second time, Santos was fatally shot in the head. Cain was later charged with murder and indicted. He served two and a half years in prison. Forensic evidence later established that the Rodriguez brothers hadn’t stolen the money.
“We didn’t have another indictment [in Dallas County] for 40 years, despite hundreds of killings [by police] — elderly people, unarmed people, mentally ill people,” John Fullinwider, Dallas native and longtime community organizer told The Appeal.
Fullinwider first became involved in police accountability activism after helping Rodriguez’s mother, Bessie Rodriguez, pen a letter to then-Attorney General Griffin Bell requesting a federal civil rights investigation into her son’s killing. The Justice Department ultimately declined to charge Cain, but Fullinwider says a letter from President Jimmy Carter lamenting the “brutality and senselessness” of the murder still hangs on Rodriguez’s wall. Sixty-five-year-old Fullinwider went on to co-found Mothers Against Police Brutality, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of mothers who have lost children to police violence created to fight for civil rights and police accountability.
It wasn’t until 2013 that another Dallas County police officer was indicted for using fatal force. This time, former officer Brad Burgess ran over and killed a bicyclist he was chasing in his squad car. (Burgess was acquitted earlier this year by a jury.) That decades-long gap steadily sowed distrust not just between community members such as Fullinwider and police officers, but also between residents and the county’s district attorneys. Dallas County DAs, Republican and Democrat alike, have repeatedly failed to press charges against officers involved in fatal shootings, creating what Fullinwider describes as a “40-year history of complete lack of accountability.”
So, in early November, when Lyndo Jones was shot twice by a police officer after being accused of breaking into his own truck east of Dallas, local community members had little reason to believe that the DA would press charges against Derick Wiley, the officer who fired the shots.
But a month after Jones’ shooting, Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson announced that her office would prosecute Derick Wiley’s case “very diligently and vigorously” after a grand jury indicted him on felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon by a public servant, D Magazine reported.
At a news conference on Dec. 6 and again in a press release shared with In Justice Today, Johnson extended her “thoughts and prayers” to Jones, who survived, and said she wanted to “reassure the citizens of Dallas County that my office is committed to seeking justice. It is my responsibility to get it right, which is why I am always thorough before making any decision regardless of the timeline.”
Before the grand jury indictment, activists criticized Johnson for not pressing charges more quickly. In late November, Dallas-based minister Danielle Ayers expressed frustration to NBC DFW: “We stand here time and time again, and nothing changes, so for us it is about directly speaking to D.A. Faith Johnson.” Shortly after Jones was shot, his attorney told local ABC reporters that Johnson’s “failure to file charges extremely taints the judicial process because it’s a signal to [the] grand jury that this is not a case they should indict.”
The hesitance of prosecutors to charge police is often credited to the close working relationship between District Attorney’s offices and local police departments. When Gov. Abbott appointed Johnson, she took her place with strong endorsements from Republican lawmakers as well as law enforcement. Frederick Frazier, president of the Dallas Police Association, said his department “could not be more pleased” with Abbott’s choice.
But according to Fullinwider, the backing of a powerful police union and Republican lawmakers has allowed Johnson to hit unique sweet spot in what is now an overwhelmingly blue county. The combination of pressure from community organizers coupled with a heightened national awareness of police violence, along with the support from the traditionally “tough on crime” crowd, has created an atmosphere in which it is politically safe for Johnson to challenge officers who step over the line.
“Faith Johnson is having a Nixon in China moment,” said Fullinwider. “You’ve got a DA who cannot be attacked from the right, and you’ve got the public demanding more accountability.”
In April, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was fatally shot in a Dallas suburb by officer Roy Oliver as he drove away from a party with his friends after the officer heard gunshots. (The police department later concluded the gunshots came from the parking lot of a nearby nursing home, and had nothing to do with the party or with Edwards and his friends.) By May 6, Oliver had been fired and arrested on a murder charge. By mid-July, the grand jury indicted the former officer. DA Johnson told reporters that she believed the indictment would send a message to other officers: “If you do wrong, we will prosecute you.”
Edwards’ murder quickly rose to prominence after his family’s attorney spread the word to national news outlets, drawing attention and outrage from anti-police brutality advocates nationwide. Between local and national protests, the baldly unjust circumstances of the shooting, and Edwards’ status in his community as a well-loved high school football player and straight-A student (“It shouldn’t matter, but it does,” notes Fullinwider), the prosecution of Oliver posed little risk or controversy for Johnson.
Wiley’s is the third prosecution by Johnson’s office of a police officer since her appointment in December 2016. In June, charges were brought against Dallas officer Christopher Hess for the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Genevive Dawes. Still, the pursuit of convictions by prosecutors against police officers remains a challenge and a rarity. And it’s worth noting that both Hess and Wiley were charged with aggravated assault, rather than murder.
In spite of the growing number of indictments of police officers from grand juries and the county DA in Dallas, Fullinwider says it’s still too early to call this a trend.
“It’s great there’s a few more indictments now, but 99 and a half percent of the time, a policeman can still do anything to you,” says Fullinwider. “We believe that the growing strength of the movement here, along with the national movement, has kept the police from being as trigger happy as they used to be. We’re going to stay on that.”