The judge behind the grand jury report


To understand Kenneth Lavon Johnson, the Baltimore judge who commissioned last week's controversial grand jury report blasting the local drug enforcement effort, you have to leave the big East Coast city and go back to the segregated South of lunch-counter sit-ins.

From there, you'd go halfway around the world to the Far East, where a black man who now notes that he "couldn't buy a hamburger in Mississippi" served his country during wartime as an Army lawyer. Your next stop would be in Washington, D.C., where this lawyer quit his job in the U.S. Justice Department because he refused to work for a "crook" like then-Attorney General John Mitchell.

You'd finally arrive in Baltimore, where this lawyer represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and won discrimination cases against the Bethlehem Steel Corp. and the city police and fire departments.

Where he used the 1982 city judicial race to address the failure of then-Gov. Harry Hughes to appoint a black to a vacancy on the city Circuit Court. Where he ran against three white incumbent judges -- and won.

In short, you'd have to look at the life of a self-described "country boy"who brought to the big city a willingness to confront his perceived wrongs.

In his most recent potshot at the status quo, the soft-spoken judge took on the criminal justice system by proxy -- placing his discontent in the hands of the 23 ordinary citizens who made up the May 1992 term of the Baltimore grand jury.

With an attack on unidentified lawyers, businessmen and bankers he said were involved in the crimes, the 55-year-old judge asked the panel to find out "why wholesale drug dealers are not being pursued and brought to justice by the criminal justice system."

The result was a grand jury report, made public last week, thatsharply criticized the city Police Department's drug

enforcement effort and called for an independent prosecutor to investigate it.

Predictably, the report angered and brought quick objections from city officials including the mayor, state's attorney and police commissioner.

But for Judge Johnson, the report was the much-awaited jury's answer to what he described as his "Paul Revere" warning, as in "Here come the druggies."

Why he did it

Lunch time doesn't arrive until almost 1:30 in the afternoon. Judge Johnson is about halfway through a day's docket that includes no fewer than 65 hearings for violation of probation.

He tells a reporter that The Sun has treated him unfairly because he is black. He says it would be "inappropriate" for him to talk about the grand jury report or even elaborate on a comment, made in a letter to the panel, that he is "in complete agreement with all the findings."

"The reason I did it was I saw what was happening and I wanted to find out why. I was concerned the system was only dealing with young street-level dealers," he says. "When I see a wrong, I try to right it. Naturally, the people who are doing the wrong are not going to be happy for that and I understand that.

"I hope all the public officials here in Baltimore City and Maryland understand my motive for what I did was public service rather than something personal. I consider myself a friend of Mayor Schmoke, of Police Commissioner Woods and State's Attorney Simms, and it was not directed at them at all but was directed at a problem I would like to see addressed, tackled.

"I think the average person in the street knows I'm correct in my charge and unfortunately our public officials are still in a state of denial," he says.

"The problem's geting worse, and one day very soon the drug lords will take over the country . . . by corrupting our public officials with drug money."

Yes, he says, he feels a little bit isolated. He's felt that way since he issued his charge to the grand jury last May.

"It's a very lonely position I'm in," he says between bites of a corned beef sandwich, but he adds: "It doesn't matter one iota. I've beenthere before."

He says he expected the reaction, and he expects it to get worse for him.

"I don't consider myself to be a crusader. I consider myself being blessed with the ability to determine right from wrong and the fortitude to adhere to the right. Just that simple," he says. "And over the years I've suffered mightily for that. If undeserved suffering is redemptive, I believe that I will be redeemed.

"I couldn't get appointed, for example. I had to run and it cost me money. If I had been quiet, I would've been appointed. I would never be considered for a high position in the Maryland judiciary.

"I've received death threats over the past several years and they've increased," he says. Asked why he's been threatened, he says: "Because of my job and who I am."

The man from Mississippi

Ken Johnson was born in Columbia, Miss., where he grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing. "I came off the farm. I picked cotton and plowed a mule," he says with pride.

During the lunch-time interview in his chambers, he stresses that he still has a fondness for the rural life-style. He says he loves to go back to the 500 acres he inherited in Mississippi.

"I drive a pickup truck and I love country music and I know my notes on the guitar. I love being alone in the woods reading books and practicing my guitar and getting as far in the swamps as I can with my 4X4 truck."

As a young law student in 1960, he and a small group of friends from the historically black Southern University and A&M; College took part in a sit-in demonstration at a lunch counter in Baton Rouge, La.

His efforts were not entirely appreciated even then -- even by other blacks. He recalled in a 1985 interview how a threat by the local sheriff to shoot them if they ever again set foot on campus was underscored by the black college president, who expelled them at gunpoint.

He says he could hardly drive down the street without being pulled over while he was trying the discrimination case against the city police. "So I'm not one who can be intimidated very easily."

On the court, Judge Johnson has earned a reputation as a sort of time-bomb hanging judge, preferring to impose long but suspended prison sentences with the warning that a violation of probation will lead to a long stretch in prison.

Judge Johnson's unusual charge to the grand jury last May had its seeds in the felony arraignment section of the Circuit Court, where he presided from November 1990 through August 1991 over a procession of 7,352 felony cases -- 85 percent of them linked in some way to drugs.

Judge Johnson saw a pattern in the unending processing of defendants -- with the average age of 25 for drug offenders -- in his courtroom.

"During the course of my 10-month tenure in the Felony Arraignment Court," he told the grand jury members, "not a single case involving a drug dealer at the wholesale drug dealing level passed through that court. Wholesale drug dealers earn tens of thousands of dollars per week and they are not being pursued by the criminal justice system -- not being brought to justice.

"Some of these wholesale drug dealers are employed in regular jobs as accountants, bankers, lawyers, doctors and businessmen in general, and their money launderers."

Circuit Court Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who assigned Judge Johnson to felony arraignments to reverse a dramatic decline in the percentage of cases resolved by guilty pleas, is sympathetic to the frustrations expressed by Judge Johnson -- although he did not feel that the city criminal justice system was to blame.

"He feels that the privileged get what they want and the underprivileged get mistreated," Judge Kaplan said of Judge Johnson.

"You have a police department that's overburdened with street crime," Judge Kaplan added. "When you're dealing with those kinds of offenses with a city that has got a lot of poor people, a lot of underprivileged people, you're going to have a lot of arrests of those kinds of people. Because they're both the victims and the perpetrators, and they're the easiest to arrest because they're doing it on the street. It's very hard for a police department with the facilities that it has to get into the board rooms and get the upper echelon criminals."

Judge Johnson is not convinced that the kingpins should be pursued by only the feds. And he does not seem likely to back off.

He notes that he's been in an Air Force plane shot down by enemy fire in Vietnam. Then he runs down the list of dangers he's survived:

"My cousin shot me in the foot because he thought a rattlesnake was going to bite me. I shot my finger off. My brother ran over me with a school bus. My number has not been called yet, and I therefore feel very strongly there is some purpose for me still being around. Until that time I am going to feel free and unintimidated by anybody."

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