'Extraordinarily Brutal' Crime Draws 28-Year Term

Toni Brown's spine was severed when her ex-girlfriend shot her in the neck. Brown had obtained a civil protection order against her.
Toni Brown's spine was severed when her ex-girlfriend shot her in the neck. Brown had obtained a civil protection order against her. (Video Image Courtesy Of The U.s. Attorney's Office)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

Toni Brown is paralyzed from her neck down, the result of a jealous ex-lover's bullet that severed her spine five months ago. She had just left work at a Safeway store in Northwest Washington when she was hit in the neck and left for dead, prosecutors said.

The shot was fired by Brown's former girlfriend, Raina L. Johnson, who surprised her on the street after Brown, 32, had obtained a civil protection order that was supposed to keep Johnson at a distance. Witnesses said they heard Johnson shout at Brown, "I said I was going to get you," before she hurled a crude epithet and ran away. Brown later told prosecutors how she had lain on the sidewalk watching her blood "pour out of me like water."

Johnson, 35, was sentenced yesterday to a 28-year prison term on a charge of assault with intent to kill, 12 years more than the maximum outlined in the voluntary sentencing guidelines for the charge.

In announcing the sentence, D.C. Superior Court Judge Harold L. Cushenberry Jr. called the shooting an "extraordinarily brutal, callous and despicable crime" and added that Johnson had to be punished severely. Prosecutor Opher Shweiki considered the shooting "an intended execution" and had asked Cushenberry to sentence Johnson as if Brown had been killed.

Brown now lives in a rehabilitation center. She speaks in a whisper and wears out after 15 minutes of conversation. Beads of sweat form on her forehead from the strain of talking. She could not attend Johnson's sentencing.

Lying propped up with pillows behind her back in an adjustable hospital bed, Brown recounted how she and Johnson began dating about two years ago. Brown would go over to Johnson's apartment in the 1600 block of 18th Street SE. Johnson would cook chicken or fish dinners as they watched Redskins games.

For a while, the relationship went smoothly, Brown said. Johnson has four children, ages 7 to 17, and Brown was impressed with how attentive Johnson was to their needs. Brown eventually moved in to the apartment. Johnson had Brown's name tattooed on her neck. Sometimes Johnson sat quietly listening to Brown sing along to songs by such artists as Earth, Wind & Fire or Yolanda Adams.

"She was cool and nice. Laid back. She didn't hang around a lot of people," Brown said. "She seemed like a good mother."

Brown said she had no idea that Johnson had a history of domestic violence cases involving former girlfriends and boyfriends dating to 1999. In 2004, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered Johnson to attend a domestic violence program. But she failed to show up for several classes and was kicked out, court records show.

"For nine months, things were good," Brown said of her relationship with Johnson. Then came arguments, which led to Brown's decision to move out last summer. According to court filings, Johnson threatened to kill Brown if she left. The violence spun out of control, Brown and her family said.

She eventually sought a civil protection order from Superior Court after a pair of incidents in early August. According to court filings, Brown packed a bag and tried to leave the apartment, planning to move in with her mother. Johnson grabbed the bag and dumped the clothes onto the floor. Then she picked up a shoe and threw it at Brown. She also hit Brown in the arm and struck her in the face, according to the court papers.

Days later, Brown called police and got them to help her retrieve her belongings from the apartment.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company