This is a job that weighs on you’
Homicide Diary: Pulaski County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Johnson.
by David Koon
What follows is the latest installment of Homicide Diary, an ongoing project in which we speak to those who have been impacted by or who deal with the aftermath of homicide in Little Rock — victims’ families, prosecutors, cops, community activists and others. As of May 6, the number of Little Rock deaths classified as homicides since Jan. 1, 2014 is 24. By this time last year, that number stood at six. In April of this year alone, there were 11 deaths classified as homicides in Little Rock, the highest single-month count in years.
He wanted to be a literature professor. That was his dream once. His closing arguments still show it sometimes, as he sneaks a literary allusion every once in awhile into the accounts of kids shooting kids over weed and slights on street corners, snippets of the great abstract struggle between chaos and order that authors have waged on paper since Gilgamesh. Somewhere along the way, however, he realized that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life staring down classrooms full of college kids who would rather be somewhere else, so he went to law school. Johnson has been with the prosecutor’s office since 1990.
I really thought that I wanted to be a public defender. I wanted to protect people’s rights. I wanted to make sure that people got fair trials. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “If you’re waiting until after a person is charged, that ship has sailed.” That’s why I decided to be a prosecutor.
I was hired in November of 1990. Back then, you started out taking complaints as a lawyer. People would come in and complain about cats going to the bathroom in their flowerbeds, or actual complaints where somebody came and beat them. So I did that. I got moved to circuit court pretty quickly, within a couple of months of working here.
I had my first murder trial in August of 1991. It was a guy named Dana El Greco Frazier. He and some friends were drinking, and he spilled his drink on his pants. His friends started giving him a hard time about having pissed himself, so he got mad and shot one of them. My supervisor, the guy I was going to try the case with, left and went to the attorney general’s office, so I got left with the case. Things were a lot different then as far as how the office was and how we did cases. We have two people sitting on all our trials now, and we certainly don’t have someone who has been a lawyer for less than a year trying our murder cases by themselves. But I did, and he got convicted and got 40 years on it. The pressure must have been intense. But I can’t remember it. I know it should have been a lot of pressure. I know I should have been scared.
This is a job that weighs on you. People ask: How can you do it? There are people here who believe that we’re all subject to some degree of post-traumatic stress. I think that might be an exaggeration. But it’s something that you carry with you all the time. I don’t know if you’re a Stephen King fan, but I recently read the sequel to “The Shining,” and there’s a character in there who puts all the ghosts that haunt him in a box in his head. I think that, for me, that’s sort of how it is. You have all these things you can’t get rid of that haunt you, and to survive, you gotta put them in a box. You compartmentalize. You can go visit it, but if you’re going to move forward, you’d better get a good lock.
age 2 of 3
To do this job well, you have to open yourself up to it. You have to be willing to. In the Anne Pressly case, they tore her house down and we knew they were going to before they did. I learned a long time ago that going to the scene of a crime puts everything in perspective, so I went to her house and sat in it for the longest time. I knew what was coming with the trial, and I knew that we were going to be asking the jury for the death penalty, and I had to allow myself to feel all that. But when it’s over, you just gotta put it away and not roll around in it, because it doesn’t serve any purpose. I don’t talk about my work a lot at home. That’s what work is for, and I try to keep my home separate. That’s a whole other compartment.
I remember once, my friends’ mom was talking about how a job changes you and I disagreed with her. I said I didn’t believe a job can change you. But I was wrong. I didn’t know it at the time. Now, I don’t know how it couldn’t change you. I think it would be wrong for it not to. You’d have to really be turning your back on everything for it not to change you. I don’t think that the people that work here can do as good a job as we do and remain immune, and be untouched.
When someone is killed, all the homicide files come through me. I get the last say on all the homicides. If we don’t file it, I meet with the victim’s family, just because we feel like that’s something we owe to them: to tell them that we’re not going to charge the person who has done this. Those are the worst conversations. It’s one thing to be immersed in it and to do something about it. But when it’s over and you didn’t get a good result for the victim, or over before the thing even starts — before the fight even starts — those are the hardest times. Those are the moments people don’t see. We had a meeting last week where one of the biggest men we’ve probably ever had in the office was in there. It was a homicide, and when we told him that we couldn’t prosecute it, he squeezed his head so hard it sounded like wet rope stretching. You could hear it in his hands. You could hear the pain.
With the victims’ families, everybody’s different. Some of them thank us. Some of them write letters, or they’ll talk to you after the verdict comes back and give you a hug. I used to sort of try to stay apart from that. That was wrong. It’s better to let people thank you. It’s more for them, and it’s something that’s important for the victim’s families: to show their gratitude. They feel so helpless, and that’s one of the hardest things for them, the feeling of helplessness.
The flip side of all the bad is the immense amount of good you see — the capacity to survive and carry on and forgive. I didn’t have any access to that at all before I started here. You have to be hurt to forgive. You have to be knocked down to have to survive. And I hadn’t seen anyone in my life with the sort of challenges that we come into contact with here. That’s the upside.
I don’t buy the desperation argument. I do buy that people come from bad situations, and I do buy that that can shape how they are. But I’m a humanist, and we see and we meet many, many more people who overcome their circumstances, whether that’s financially or not. They don’t do what the slightest minority of people do.
There’s a kid who I prosecuted years ago who was 14. He got life without [parole]. He should be coming up soon for one of his hearings. But about three years ago, I got a letter from him. He was thanking me. He said that the judge and I are the most important men in his life. He said that, but for us, he’d be dead. What do you do with that? I didn’t write him back. I didn’t think that’d be right. I didn’t want to give him hope that maybe things could change for him.
It’s just stupid. It’s just a waste. In the big picture, a murder doesn’t add up to anything. But in the finite sense that we deal with it, with the victims’ families, it accomplishes the retribution part. For them, that can’t be minimized. The hardest thing about a lot of the cases is that they’re just the manifestation of chaos, and it’s 360 degrees, from getting witnesses to come talk to you, to getting juries to care about your victim. Chaos to me is when the rules don’t apply. In that instance, the rule that you want to apply is to make people care what happened, to make them care that the laws are enforced to protect all of us, to make juries care about the belief in what we’re trying to tell them.
I think we win most of the battles, but maybe we’re losing the war. On a down day, you feel like that. But I don’t think you can get caught up in the big picture of it. If you do, the whole thing just washes over you. You’ve got to take it one case at a time, and just win as many as you can. Then, maybe, at the end of the day, it’s a better place. I haven’t lost my faith in humanity, because I don’t see “humanity.” I see individuals. It’s not a group. It’s not a block mentality. So no, I don’t think I’ve lost faith. I’ve gained hope, and my faith has more value now, because I can see the challenges in it. Blind faith? What good is that? If you’ve got faith knowing the darkness, that’s better.