In this holiday season, one expects messages of reconciliation and peace. But peace is not possible without justice, and justice has not been served in the case of the murder of Gilberto Hernandez.
On Sept. 8, 1998, Hernandez died in Laurel of injuries sustained during an assault by six robbers. The city police interviewed the witnesses to the crime, Hernandez's two brothers, Juan and Tomas. A few days later, all six of the alleged assailants were charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and first- and second-degree assault.
Then justice took a strange turn. Prince George's County State's Attorney Jack Johnson decided to interview only the assailants and not the two brothers before the grand jury convened on Nov. 10, 1998. He granted immunity to four of the assailants and charged the other three with lesser crimes of common-law murder (which includes first-degree premeditated and felony murder; second-degree murder; and voluntary and involuntary manslaughter) and first-degree assault. He did not bother to speak to the Hernandez family until seven months after the attack, although he talked about the case freely to community groups and on radio programs.
Then on March 16, Johnson accused Father Brian Jordan of witness tampering, when the priest said publicly that Juan and Tomas Hernandez deserved to be interviewed as prime witnesses to the robbery and murder of their brother. This was by no means new information. Laurel police had the brothers' account of the crime recorded in their charging documents in early September of 1998, more than two weeks before Father Brian ever met the Hernandez family, thus making the accusation of witness tampering ludicrous.
At a county council subcommittee hearing in April, Johnson's obstructive behavior that indirectly affected the Hernandez case continued. At that hearing his deputy, Mark Spencer, testified that the state's attorney's office had six fluent Spanish-speaking attorneys, but when asked to name them, both Johnson and Spencer declined. The following month, during a budget review for the state's attorney's office held in front of the county council, Johnson and Spencer did not see fit to be present, having cited a prior unspecified commitment. If the state's attorney's office really has six Spanish-speaking attorneys, why couldn't at least one of them speak with the Hernandez family before the grand jury indicted the three assailants on lesser charges?
Johnson is the top law enforcement official in Prince George's County, yet he has acted more like an attorney for the defense in the Hernandez case. His behavior has shown great disrespect toward Latinos. Gilberto Hernandez did not receive justice. However, his death has not been in vain, because it has become a defining moment in the collective memory of the Hispanic community in Maryland.
These sacred holidays are a time for peace with authentic reconciliation. The Latino community deserves an apology for the way the murder of Gilberto Hernandez was handled. Its members hope to hear one soon from Prince George's State Attorney Jack Johnson.
-- Maria Hernandez
-- Brian Jordan
are, respectively, the sister of Gilberto Hernandez and a Franciscan priest.