Johnson letter to editor

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Letter to the editor

Father believes son’s constitutional rights not protected

I am the father of AJ Johnson, who was the subject of the “Muddled plea bargain gets new judge…” article in the Friday, October 23 edition. Unlike the officers of the court I am not highly educated. I am a simple man. My philosophy in life is not complicated. Things are black or white, left or right, up or down, or right or wrong.

I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I try to live my life with honor and respect for the law. My goal is to instill those same qualities in my children.  Those who know me know that I’m a straight shooter and I call it like I see it.

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My son, AJ, was scheduled for a plea hearing in Circuit Court in Panola County on October 16. I had no doubt that his rights guaranteed him and all Americans under the Constitution of the United States of America would be upheld, respected, and protected in the courtroom that day. But that wasn’t the case.

The article states that court procedures required Judge Baker to confirm that the defendant was competent and alert. The article failed to mention that the judge is also required to confirm that the defendant freely and voluntarily without coercion entered his plea.

In AJ’s court case I believe that officials clearly knew that his plea was not going to be entered freely and voluntarily. His plea was entered at the threat of loss of liberty, a threat that was serious enough to cause AJ immediate panic taking into consideration that he had plans to participate in a national Police Athletic League boxing tournament which was two days away and is held once annually.

AJ, as the state amateur champion, was to represent Panola County in this event.  Instead the judge revoked his bond (the terms of which AJ had not violated) and threw him in jail with no bond as if he was a murderer, rapist, or terrorist. Is something wrong with that scenario?

I hold judges in very high esteem. They occupy a position in society that is ordained of God. I first became acquainted with the responsibility of judges when I read the book of Judges in the Old Testament as a young child. Evidently our family was naive or just expecting too much when we believed that AJ would appear before a fair and impartial magistrate.

In my opinion the public defender’s office is supposed to provide a vigorous defense for the most vulnerable among us, the poor, the indigent, etc., ensuring that their constitutional rights will be protected. Some defendants might not even be aware of their rights but it is the duty of the public defender to “defend” those rights.

It is my opinion that David Walker in his capacity as AJ’s public defender has been negligent, and incompetent if not willfully irresponsible. As Panola County residents I think we should be offended. During Walker’s last consultation with AJ (in Panola County lockup), before his hearing Wednesday, he told AJ that the judge was highly upset with him because his father was in front of Batesville courthouse Monday and Tuesday exercising his constitutional rights; and that the DA was upset too and going to file additional charges if he did not accept the plea offer. I think that this conduct by Walker further demonstrates the use of threats and intimidation to secure a guilty plea from my son.

As a father, as a concerned citizen who believes in truth, justice, and the American way, I expect AJ to come before a fair and impartial judge, have a competent public defender, and have his constitutional rights guarded and protected.

This issue screams for the attention of public officials who are charged with the duty of overseeing the court process and the attention of taxpayers of the Seventeenth Circuit Court District, Panola County Second Judicial District, whose hard earned dollars are, in my opinion, being squandered when used to pay the salaries of judges, DAs, and public defenders who conduct themselves in the manner witnessed in this case.

I did not create these violations that occurred in Judge Andrew C. Baker’s courtroom on Friday, October 16 nor am I fabricating any contents of this article. I’m just responding as a loving father who loves his son, his family, and his country.

As I see it, even if AJ had counseled with his public defender and signed the plea agreement, he still had every right to plead not guilty when standing before the judge and walk out of that courtroom a free man, presumed innocent until proven guilty.

 Since our family’s relocation to Panola County in 1999 we have come in contact with Panolians from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions. Some of these contacts have resulted in lasting friendships that span from the highest elected officials, to your average blue collar worker, to the Panolians who find themselves in the unfortunate position of being unemployed, struggling to make ends meet.

The late Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright was among our professional contacts. In the capacity of his work the Sheriff concluded that there was sufficient reason to grant AJ’s conditional release until his trial, based on his personal knowledge of the Johnson family. Our disappointment with the situation that AJ finds himself in is based on his poor judgment and the level of incompetence we feel was displayed by officers of the court who should have been involved in securing the defendant’s constitutional rights under the law.

I ask your readers to ponder this question. After the reporter interviewed the judge, the DA, and the public defender, why was I not called a liar, and my allegation dismissed as baseless?

In the article in question Judge Baker is credited with this statement to my son from the bench, “To make you feel better you won’t see me anymore.” What would have prompted the judge to make that statement?

/s/ Michael Johnson