Friday, February 27, 2009

Murder or Accident? An Unsolvable Case

There was a time when messin' with a white woman was a death sentence for young black men. That's how Emmett Till died in 1955. Race mixing was statutorily forbidden in many states, and often enforced by vigilantes in white hoods.

For so long miscegenation was the rubicon of the race cold war that, even now, if anything happens to a young man who crosses that boundary, it's hard for many people to believe his demise was anything but murder.

This is the case with the family of Billey Joe Johnson Jr and their supporters. When Johnson died after a December 2008 traffic stop, the deputy who stopped him maintained that Johnson must have intentionally or accidentally shot himself.

Immediately people were suspicious, and even more so when reports surfaced that a white girl called police earlier that morning to report Johnson trespassing on her property. Apparently Johnson and the girl were involved at one point, but broke it off.

It's entirely conceivable that a white Mississippi deputy might still harbor enough racial hatred to murder Johnson for messin' with a white girl, but the question is: did he?

There was a time when nobody would have even investigated the deputy's claims, but in Johnson's case, a grand jury was called who heard from 30 witnesses and examined the available forensic evidence and they concluded the deputy didn't shoot Johnson.

I'm fairly proud of the effort George county officials have made in investigating this matter. It's still possible they're all lying to cover up a murder, but there was a time when they wouldn't have even tried to make it look like they were doing the right thing, just to make it that much more intimidating to anyone else who might consider crossing racial lines.

Their efforts weren't enough for the family and some civil rights groups though and they're now calling for the FBI to investigate the matter. Were I in their shoes, I would probably do the same thing.

The problem is, even if nobody ever comes up with enough evidence to convict the Deputy, there will still be lots of people unable or unwilling to believe he's innocent. There will forever be a cloud of doubt following him, even if he really is innocent.

That's the problem with the kind of broad scale injustice that plagued this country for so long: even when it's over, it's hard for anyone to know if it's really over. There's no big sign that pops up saying "it's OK to trust the system now".

Either way, somebody pays for the sins of the past. Either Johnson paid for the deputy's lingering race hate, or the deputy and the system he represents pays because people are unwilling to trust them.

The only thing the state can do is be extra transparent in their handling of the case, and understand that even if they double their efforts to uncover the truth, it may still not be enough to satisfy everyone. We have to be patient with that and just understand that it's going to part of the process for a while to come. We earned this lack of trust and it's going to take a long time to change it.


Sandi said...

That was a very strange case. The type of gun that was used, and the angle made it seem impossible that he'd shot himself. But the evidence wasn't enough to indicate the deputy, either.
Good blog post.

A. Boyd C. said...

I doubt if we'll ever have enough evidence to say we know what happened without significant doubt. A lot of people might feel better if we convicted the deputy anyway, but that's not fair either.