Martese Johnson: ‘How could this happen?’

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Martese Johnson, left, stands with his lawyer Daniel Watkins at a press conference on the Downtown Mall on Thursday, March 18. Staff photo Martese Johnson, left, stands with his lawyer Daniel Watkins at a press conference on the Downtown Mall on Thursday, March 18. Staff photo

At a Thursday evening press conference on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, Martese Johnson’s lawyer told reporters his client, the 20-year-old African-American UVA student whose bloody arrest by ABC officers on the Corner early Wednesday morning has sparked outrage, would “fight the criminal charges against him with the utmost vigor.”

Johnson, who was joined at the press conference by his mother and brother, stood next to Williams Mullen attorney Daniel Watkins as the lawyer gave his account of the arrest. At 12:30am Wednesday, said Watkins, Johnson was standing outside Trinity Irish Pub when an employee of the bar asked him for identification.

“Martese presented a valid Illinois state identification card, issued in 2011,” Watkins said. “The employee then asked Martese for his zip code, and he recited his mother’s Chicago City zip code and her current address, which is different from the zip code on the identification card that was printed almost four years ago.”

At no time did Johnson present a fake ID, said Watkins, a detail that was included in some early unverified reports of the incident.

After that, Watkins said, three officers then threw Johnson to the ground, “his head hitting the pavement the officers’ knees pressed into his back, his face…bleeding and needing surgery.” Watkins said the two offenses Johnson was charged with—obstruction of justice without force and swearing or public intoxication—require only a fine.

Watkins described Johnson as “an upstanding young man with a bright future.” Raised by his single mom on the south side of Chicago, he got into UVA on a full scholarship based on financial need, Watkins said, serves on the University’s Honor Committee, and has no criminal record.

“He has worked hard to become a well-respected leader on campus and to make a difference in this community,” said Watkins. “Our primary goals are to make certain he receives due process under the law and to protect his good name.”

According to Watkins, the family and lawyer today met with members of the Virginia State Police, who are conducting a criminal investigation into the incident. They also sat down with UVA president Teresa Sullivan, whom Watkins said “expressed her remorse regarding this terrible situation, and told Martese that he has her support.”

The same support was offered up by students, professors and even complete strangers while they walked Grounds today, he said.

Before Johnson walked away with his arms around his family members, Watkins read a statement his client had prepared in which he expressed shock at his treatment, but a belief that his experience isn’t and should not be the norm.

“As the officers held me down, one thought raced through my head: ‘How could this happen?’” Watkins read. “I still believe in our community. I know this community will support me during this time. I trust that the scars on my face and head will one day heal. The trauma from what the ABC officers did will stay with me forever. I believe we as a community are better than this. We cannot allow the actions of a few officers to ruin the community of trust we have worked so hard to build.”