The Teen-Age Killer, 16 Years Later


Havre de Grace. -- It isn't hard to feel sorry for Terrence LTC Johnson, now being portrayed as Maryland's political prisoner of the moment. But in this case a little compassion goes a long way.

In June, 1978, when he was 15 years old, Terrence Johnson shot and killed two Prince George's County police officers. That is not in dispute. He's been in jail ever since, and now wants to get out. A hearing on a petition he's filed, hoping to force his release, is scheduled for today before Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr. of the Anne Arundel County circuit court.

In Johnson's favor is the fact of his youth at the time of the offense, and the further fact that he was convicted of manslaughter, not murder. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter and another 15 for illegal use of a handgun. The sentences were to be served consecutively, making a total of 25 years in prison. He has about nine years to go.

It's fair to say that 25 years is an unusually long prison term for a single count of manslaughter and a handgun charge. But it's equally fair to say that for a defendant who has killed two policemen, Johnson got off lightly. In any case, his requests for parole have been repeatedly denied.

Johnson's lawyers and other supporters, contrasting his punishment with the charges for which he was convicted, suggest that he is being treated unjustly. Implicit in their objections is the assertion that he is a victim of racial prejudice, as he is black and the two officers he killed were white.

Needless to say, the police community takes a different view. There's a lot of disagreement about Johnson, and a lot of people are following his case very closely. Whatever the outcome, some of them are going to be unhappy about it.

The 1970s, when Terrence Johnson entered adolescence, were difficult years in Prince George's County. The demographics of the county were rapidly changing, and its major institutions -- especially the police and the schools -- were having a hard time keeping up. Race relations were especially strained.

In January of 1973, the Prince George's school system, as directed by the federal courts, began busing about one-third of its students to different schools in the name of racial integration. Enlightened opinion applauded, but many parents, black as well as white, were dubious about this disruptive process. Their reservations were well-founded, for the busing immediately led to two unforeseen, and unfortunate, developments.

One was white flight from Prince George's. Over ten years the percentage of white students in the county system dropped from 80 percent to 45 percent. And the atmosphere in the schools became less civil. Daily assaults reported to the superintendent's office averaged 1.8 the year before the busing upheaval, 5.2 the year after.

Through this period the county police department remained the tough, mostly white, and occasionally arrogant place it had been for years. When a psychiatrist wrote the chief of police to complain about being rudely treated by a Prince George's officer during a routine traffic stop, the officer sued the doctor for libel. The P.G. cops had an attitude, were known for it, and were proud of it.

So when Terrence Johnson and his older brother were arrested -- for driving a car without lights -- and taken to the Hyattsville police station for questioning, he had some reason to be apprehensive.

Exactly what happened at the station, where Johnson was interrogated by two Prince George's officers, will never be explained to everyone's satisfaction. Johnson said he had been beaten and was in fear of his life, so he grabbed one officer's handgun and began shooting. Both policemen died. There were no other witnesses.

As in the Rodney King case years later, the jury that tried Terrence Johnson did so in an atmosphere of racial antagonism. Its verdict, guilty of manslaughter, seemed an attempt to placate both sides by choosing a middle course between acquittal and a finding of guilty of two counts of murder. But of course, no one was placated, and to this day neither side believes justice was done.

From a legal standpoint, it's doubtful that Terrence Johnson will get out of prison any time soon. Any court ruling on his recent petition for release is sure to be appealed. That could take years, and as long as that process is still grinding forward, the parole authorities aren't likely to consider his case again.

Even so, if he behaves himself in prison, he'll be out at least by the time he's 40, with the rest of his life to look forward to. In that respect he's a fortunate man. He might have lived at a time, or in a place, in which society made absolutely certain that people who killed police officers would never have the chance to do it again.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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