Commonwealth needs more time in Martese Johnson case

Martese Johnson and his attorney, Daniel Watkins, are optimistic that charges against Johnson will be dropped, even if it means another court date in June. 
Staff photo Martese Johnson and his attorney, Daniel Watkins, are optimistic that charges against Johnson will be dropped, even if it means another court date in June. Staff photo

At a scheduled May 28 court hearing, the prosecution asked for more time to review the Virginia State Police investigation into the bloody March 18 arrest by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents of 20-year-old UVA student Martese Johnson.

Prosecutors said in a motion that a final meeting with state police is set for the first week in June to review evidence, discuss findings and make decisions about the case. “Without suggesting what result may be reached, a short time after this meeting, the commonwealth will advise counsel for the defendant whether or not the commonwealth will be seeking to pursue the charges pending…,” read the motion, which suggested a June 12 court date, by which time a decision will be made.

Johnson was charged with obstruction of justice and being drunk in public after he was turned away from Trinity Irish Pub on the Corner early March 18 and questioned by ABC officers waiting there to apprehend underage drinkers. One of the agents grabbed his arm, and when Johnson asked to be released, he was grabbed from behind and wrestled to the ground, according to a friend. His head hit the sidewalk and required 10 stitches before he was delivered to jail.

Johnson’s attorney, UVA law grad Daniel Watkins, filed a motion to dismiss the charges, asserting that his client was arrested without reasonable suspicion. “An unconstitutional seizure occurred the first time [Special Agent Jared] Miller grabbed Mr. Johnson and demanded that he stop to answer questions,” said the motion. When Johnson was grabbed, there were no facts to support a reasonable belief he was engaged in criminal activity, the motion contended.

Watkins said if the case was tried, he’d need a two-day trial.

Said Charlottesville General District Court Judge Bob Downer, “Frankly, we don’t do two-day trials in general district court.” Downer said he would hear the case, not a jury, and he’d go to 5am the next day if necessary. He scheduled a September 30 trial date.

Outside the courtroom, Watkins said the charges are very serious and “it’s a big deal to have jail time hanging over your head.” He said he had not seen the state police report. “We believe the police lacked justifiable suspicion to detain [Johnson] so we believe the charges should be dropped,” said the attorney. He also said that he believed Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman was a “reasonable” man, and noted that Chapman’s small staff of prosecutors have been busy with two murder cases.

Johnson, who leaves for a Capitol Hill internship next week, spoke to reporters. “I just want to thank everyone who has supported me through what has been a strenuous process.” He added, “I believe justice will be served.”

The photo of Johnson on the ground and bleeding put the ABC in the national spotlight again and sparked protests on Grounds. Two years ago, ABC agents arrested a terrified, sparkling water-carrying Elizabeth Daly after surrounding her car in a darkened Harris Teeter parking lot, and later paid out $212,500 to settle the UVA student’s lawsuit.

Chapman refused to prosecute the Daly case, and immediately following Johnson’s arrest, he asked the Virginia State Police to launch a criminal investigation into the ABC officers’ arrest of Johnson. Although the ABC refused to identify the agents, according to the defense motion, they’re Miller, John Cielakie and Thomas Custer.

Johnson will appear again in court June 12 to learn whether his charges will be dismissed or if he goes to trial.







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