Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

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.

YouTube

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.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

These NBA and NFL Stars Want Prosecutors To Stop Seeking Life Without Parole For Kids

Anquan Boldin, DeAndre Levy, Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, Stan Van Gundy

Flanked by local advocates in Detroit during a meeting are (second from left) DeAndre Levy, Anquan Boldin and Don Carey, former and current players for the Detroit Lions
Angela LaChica

These NBA and NFL Stars Want Prosecutors To Stop Seeking Life Without Parole For Kids

Anquan Boldin, DeAndre Levy, Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, Stan Van Gundy


Just last week, 71-year-old Henry Montgomery found out he would spend yet another Christmas behind bars in Louisiana. He has spent more than 50 Christmases there, but he thought this year might be different. The parole board was set to hear his case for release, but on the day of the hearing, the board delayed it.

In 1963, when John F. Kennedy was president, a judge sentenced the then 17-year-old Montgomery to life without parole. America is the only place in the world where prosecutors regularly try kids as adults and request that kids be sentenced to die behind bars with no hope of freedom.

But Montgomery now has a second chance, thanks to a string of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2012, the Supreme Court recognized that kids are different from adults. They have underdeveloped brains, impairing judgment and impulse control, and are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure. Unsurprisingly, those who make their way into the criminal-justice system are often themselves victims (pdf) of physical abuse, sexual abuse, extreme poverty, and trauma at elevated levels.

Because of these differences, the Supreme Court eliminated life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder, and severely limited it for kids charged with murder, ruling that only the “irreparably corrupt” can receive a juvenile life without parole sentence. And in 2016, in Henry Montgomery’s appeal, the court made that decision retroactive.

Montgomery is now one of the more than 2,100 “juvenile lifers” in America’s prisons waiting to plead his case.

Still, the sentence prevails, especially in Michigan — where we’ve all lived and either played sports or coached. While 19 states and the District of Columbia have formally eliminated juvenile life without parole, and while prosecutors in most states almost never seek it, district attorneys in Michigan, Louisiana and a few isolated pockets are leading the charge to keep kids behind bars. Forever.

Take Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. As of July of 2016 (pdf), Wayne County had more than 150 people with juvenile life without parole sentences — the second highest in the country. Ninety percent of those kids are black, even though black people make up just 39 percent of the population. The elected prosecutor, Kym Worthy, has pushed to maintain the original life sentence in nearly 40 percent of the juvenile life without parole cases even though the Supreme Court has said only the rare kid should qualify. Jessica Cooper, the elected prosecutor in nearby Oakland County, Mich., is asking for death behind bars in almost 90 percent of the proceedings.

During our recent Detroit listen-and-learn tour focused on juvenile justice, several of us heard moving stories about those juvenile lifers who have now been given a second chance. We met Edward Sanders, who at 17 was sentenced to life without parole for participating in a drive-by shooting even though he was not the shooter. His accomplishments behind bars are remarkable. He served on a Michigan committee to help improve relations between prison staff and inmates. He received his bachelor’s degree, took a paralegal course, and served as a resident jailhouse lawyer, helping other inmates with their pleadings. He even taught classes. And in July of this year, after more than 40 years in prison, he was resentenced and paroled.

But there are hundreds of people like Edward Sanders who are no longer a danger to society and have something to contribute. Like Sanders, they should be given an opportunity to show they have changed and earn their release.

When prosecutors like those in Michigan ask to maintain juvenile life without parole sentences, they are saying that people who received lengthy sentences as kids should not have the opportunity to plead their cases to a parole board even after serving decades for their crimes — no matter how changed or how successful they have been in classes or programs. That’s a startling claim to make about a kid who committed a crime before he or she could vote, order a drink, join the military or, for some, drive a car.

These prosecutors are simply refusing to comply with the Supreme Court’s mandate. That should change. They should let individuals convicted as children plead their cases to a parole board after spending decades in prison, exercising empathy instead of relying on overly harsh juvenile sentences. State legislators can also pass legislation to end juvenile life without parole. We place trust in our elected officials to follow the law and do the right thing, but they are failing us. We call on our elected leaders to stop betraying the public trust, and to end juvenile life without parole forever.


Stan Van Gundy is head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Tobias Harris and Anthony Tolliver are current NBA players for the Detroit Pistons. Anquan Boldin and DeAndre Levy are former NFL players for the Detroit Lions.
This article was published in partnership with The Root.

More in Explainers

Washington’s Largest County Bans Solitary Confinement For Kids in Adult Jails

Getty Images

Washington’s Largest County Bans Solitary Confinement For Kids in Adult Jails


Last week, councilmembers in Washington State’s largest county unanimously passed a bill that eliminates solitary confinement for youth detained in adult correctional facilities. In doing so, they joined a growing group of lawmakers across the country taking a stance against a practice that has disastrous effects on kids and teenagers tangled up in the criminal justice system.

The bill was introduced in the King County Council in November. It defines solitary confinement as “the placement of an incarcerated person in a locked room or cell alone with minimal or no contact with persons other than guards, correctional facility staff, and attorneys.” With the vote, juveniles in the county’s two adult facilities — located in Seattle and Kent — cannot be segregated unless there’s a safety concern that cannot be solved using a less repressive measure. Solitary can no longer be used as a form of punishment. The legislation’s sponsors cited the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Department of Justice, and the United Nations, all of which have reported that isolation impacts brain development and exacerbates mental health disorders. Isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, paranoia, and suicide, the bill states.

The bill also ensures that youth in the adult facilities receive educational programming in accordance with state school standards. Solitary confinement essentially prevents youth from participating in these types of programs.

Solitary confinement was already banned in King County’s juvenile detention center.

Neuroscientistsjuvenile justice advocates, and Supreme Court justices agree that young people shouldn’t be treated the same way as adult offenders. But Washington law stipulates that 16 and 17-year-olds must be prosecuted in the adult court system for specific crimes, including burglary, robbery, and murder. Prosecutors also have the power to request that a young person be moved from the juvenile system, which is supposed to be rehabilitative, to the more punitive adult one.

Youth who end up in King County’s adult facilities — 86 percent of whom were black in 2016 — are often thrown in solitary confinement for “protective custody” or disciplinary reasons. Many are detained pretrial, and therefore haven’t been found guilty of a crime. According to a federal class action lawsuit filed in October, some kids held at the King County Jail are housed in small, isolated, window-less cells for weeks or months on end with “no meaningful human interaction, little to no education or programming, no music or television, and very few reading materials.” They only receive “a few minutes of face-to-face instruction,” and their recreation excludes interaction with other people. Solitary confinement has been used to punish them for being too loud, talking back, or wearing the wrong clothes.

“It is my hope that this legislation marks a significant shift in the way we think about and administer justice, especially for minors, at King County,” said bill cosponsor Jeanne Kohl-Welles. “It is our responsibility to make sure all young people in detention have the access and opportunity they need to reach their full potential, such as educational programming required under state law.”

With their unanimous vote, councilmembers in King County joined the national movement to ban all solitary confinement for juveniles, whether they are detained in youth or adult facilities. The issue was thrust into the national spotlight in 2016, when former President Barack Obama banned the practice in federal adult prisons. But most kids are detained in facilities run by individual states, which have their own laws and policies to dictate where youth are detained and how they are treated.

According to Jennifer Lutz, a staff attorney for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, it is extremely difficult to assess how many kids are in solitary nationwide. Jails, prisons, and youth detention centers use different terms to describe the practice, such as isolation and segregation, which makes it hard to collect and assess the most accurate numbers. What’s clear is that solitary confinement “has long been the default method of security and behavior control” for youth in the adult criminal system, Lutz told In Justice Today. Adult facilities are particularly ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with young people’s unique behavioral, developmental, and mental health needs. They see solitary confinement as a solution to a perceived problem, Lutz says.

“It’s inhumane,” she added. “Young people need to be engaged.”

But juvenile justice advocates who want to eliminate solitary are notching key victories at the state and local level. This year, Connecticut and Washington, D.C passed legislation to severely limit when isolation can be used. Similar legislation was introduced in Virginia, New Mexico, and Nevada. Local facilities in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Nebraska have also been sued for the practice. In September, the American Correctional Association, which sets national standards and certifies youth and adult facilities, announced possible changes to restrictive housing for youth. Under its proposed policy guidelines, “separation” would no longer be a disciplinary or punitive option.

For now, King County is one of the jurisdictions leading the way.

“There is a growing national consensus that placing juveniles is solitary confinement is both unconstitutional and inhumane,” Vanessa Hernandez, the Youth Policy Director for the ACLU of Washington, said of the recent county vote. “The ordinance sends a strong message that this practice should not occur in King County Detention facilities, and we applaud the council for showing strong leadership to protect children.”

More in Podcasts