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.
"Every time something happened, Toni called the police. She did what she was supposed to do," said her mother, Stephany Hill.
Police and advocates said that although incidents involving murder or maiming are the exception, the Brown case sheds light on the prevalence of same-sex domestic violence.
"Just like in heterosexual domestic cases, most of the abuse that occurs is punching, kicks, slaps, pushing or even threats, said Lt. Brett Parson, who heads the D.C. police special liaison unit, which includes a squad that deals with crimes against gay men and lesbians. "And people don't think that is abuse, but it is."
D.C. police said they believe many same-sex domestic violence cases are not reported as such. Victims, fearing backlash from friends, family members, employers or even police, report being assaulted but avoid disclosing the nature of the relationship, Parson said.
The police department created the Victims Services Branch two years ago to assist victims of domestic abuse. In its first year, the unit had 40 domestic violence cases involving gay men and lesbians, officials said. Last year, that number more than doubled.
"If anything good can come out of this tragedy, it is that it woke people up that extreme violence between women is possible," said Morgan Lynn, a staff attorney with Women Empowered Against Violence, or WEAVE, a District-based advocacy group. "There are a lot of myths in the lesbian community that women don't hurt each other."
Brown's case is proof that they do.
On Aug. 12, Johnson approached Brown at a bus stop in Adams Morgan, court papers say. Brown, the night manager of a Safeway store on Columbia Road, was getting ready to go to work. She said that Johnson started an argument, accusing her of seeing someone else, and that, as she turned to walk away, she felt a hard smack against her neck. Brown said she then saw Johnson with a towel. Brown said she later learned that the towel had been wrapped around a hard ball.
Later, Brown said, Johnson tried to reach her about 20 times while she was at work. At the time, Brown said, she was seeing another woman, although she did not tell Johnson.
On Aug. 13, Brown sought a protective order against Johnson, which a judge granted. Prosecutors also charged Johnson with misdemeanor assault.
Johnson appeared for a hearing on the assault charge Sept. 8 and was ordered to return to D.C. Superior Court two days later. But she didn't show up, records show, and a warrant for her arrest was issued.
Prosecutors said that Johnson surprised Brown at 12:15 a.m. Sept. 25 near the Safeway store in the 1700 block of Columbia Road NW. As Brown bent over to pull a newspaper out of a vending machine, Johnson walked up, raised her right arm and fired a gun at Brown's neck from a foot away, prosecutors said.
Johnson was arrested several days later and has been in jail since. She pleaded guilty in December. In court yesterday, Johnson shook her head repeatedly as prosecutor Shweiki outlined the events that led up to the shooting.
Johnson later apologized to Brown and her family. "I am deeply sorry for my actions. I want to apologize to Ms. Brown, her family, the court and society." She later asked Cushenberry for a "fair sentence."
Johnson's court-appointed attorney, Lloyd Nolan, said at an earlier hearing that Johnson had been abused when she was younger and lately had been hearing voices in jail and suffering from severe depression and nightmares.
As the sentence was announced, one of Johnson's aunts tearfully mouthed, "I love you" to Johnson before U.S. marshals escorted her from the courtroom. Johnson's family members declined to speak publicly but disputed various accounts that led to the shooting. They said they wished Johnson had not pleaded guilty.
Brown's family and friends said they hoped the verdict would ease the migraines that Brown has been suffering for the past few days.
With Johnson locked up, Brown said she wants to focus on regaining movement in her arms and legs. She is determined to walk again, her mother said, although doctors have told family members that that is unlikely.
Often, the only noise in Brown's room is the sound of the respirator that helps her breathe. When she needs to call a nurse, Brown presses a remote-control button with her mouth. During the past few weeks, her mood has shifted between anger and depression, her mother, said.
In the meantime, Kimberly Reynolds, Brown's new girlfriend, is coordinating a fundraising effort to help pay medical bills.