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University of Virginia honor student talks arrest, future

29th June 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Joey Matthews
Contributing Writer

(Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Richmond Free Press) — Martese Johnson still has two scars on his forehead and one under his left eye.

The rising fourth-year University of Virginia honors student also bears deep emotional wounds, for which he has undergone counseling.

The scars are reminders to Johnson of what can happen to African-American males when they are confronted by white- law enforcement officers in what would seem to be even the most mundane circumstances.

Three months after he was slammed face first onto the pavement during a questionable arrest by three white Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control officers outside a Charlottesville pub, memories of that night still haunt him.

“I don’t think I’ll ever fully get past it,” Johnson told the Free Press on Tuesday. “I think it will last the rest of my life.

“Regardless of what I do, someone will always know me for this incident, personally or professionally,” he added.

Johnson was charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice — both misdemeanors — after his violent takedown on March 17. Prosecutors announced on June 12 that they were dropping the charges lodged against him.

Charlottesville Commonweal­th’s Attorney Dave Chapman says he dropped the charges after determining Johnson “had done nothing wrong” before ABC agents confronted him to determine if he was using a fake I.D. or was intoxicated.

He said he could have charged Johnson with resisting detention, but decided that trying to slap the young man with a criminal record would “not be right.”

Johnson, who recently turned 21, spoke from Washington, where he is completing an internship this summer with the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. He said he focuses on issues pertinent to millennials, such as criminal justice reform, climate change and campus sexual assault.

Johnson discussed the night of his very public arrest.

“I was not drunk,” Johnson said.

Images of his bloodied face spread via social media, sparking local and national outrage and demonstrations.

Johnson said that at the time, he was well aware of the highly publicized deaths of Black males by law enforcement officers in locales such as Ferguson, Mo., New York City, Cleveland and North Charleston, S.C.

“I look at those situations and feel blessed I’m still alive,” he said in retrospect. “When they took me down, I could have hit the pavement in a different way and things could have turned out much differently.”

Johnson said his attorney, Daniel Watkins of the Richmond-based Williams Mullen law firm, sent him a text message before they were to meet last week to go to the Charlottesville court.

“At first, I thought something had gone wrong,” Johnson said. “When he told me the news, I paused for a second. But because I was really excited, I had to scream.”

Watkins told the Free Press shortly after a press conference outside the courthouse last Friday, “I’m happy with the result. We’re happy that justice was served.”

George Keith Martin, rector of the University of Virginia, concurred.

“Martese is a fine young man with a very bright future. I wish him well in his fourth year at U.Va., and I am pleased that the cloud of the ABC charges has been lifted,” said Mr. Martin, who also is managing partner of McGuire Woods’ Richmond office.

Chapman, the Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorney, also said he would not pursue charges against the ABC agents involved. He said after reviewing an investigation by the Virginia State Police that involved interviews with 52 people, including 15 witnesses to the bloody arrest, he found the ABC agents acted properly. He said the agents had authority to detain Johnson and that he found no indication they acted with “malice or racial animosity” in their handling of the situation.

Chapman also noted that Johnson resisted when they sought to handcuff him.

Perry Hicks, a Richmond security officer and former special court appointed conservator of the peace, said he believes Chapman’s office cleared the officers to “establish a positive defense against what will be any possible civil litigation” on Mr. Johnson’s behalf.

Watkins would not say if a civil lawsuit on Johnson’s behalf is being considered.

This article originally published in the June 29, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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