The Rev. Perry A. Smith remembers the morning of June 26 vividly. "The news reports began to filter in. Two policemen were dead - a tragedy. Then I heard that a young boy, a black boy, a 15-year-old, had been involved in the crime."
Smith's voice was heavy with emotion as he addressed about 50 people gathered in the All Souls Unitarian Church.
"I was completely frustrated," he said. "I felt compassion for the families of the two officers involved, but I also began to wonder what could have happened to lead to such an incident.
"Terrence Johnson is a little guy," Smith said, holding his hand out at waist level, "and when you meet him, I thimk you'll understand why I feel so strongly about him and about his case."
Perry Smith, the pastor of the Brenwood Baptist Church, has given this speech many times as he raises money to defend Terrence Johnson against charges that the youth murdered two Prince George's policemen in the middle of the Hyattsville police station with the revolver of one of the officers.
As a spokesman for the Terrence Johnson Defense Fund, he has voiced the sentiments of a sizable group of Prince George's County residents, mostly blacks, who think there is more to the Terrence Johnson case than meets the eye.
They see Johnson, a 5-foot-7-inch, 110-pound ninth grader, as an innocent child picked up on suspicion of robbing a laundromat coin box, detained for more than half an hour and then, as the result of brutality or fear of it, led to panic and grab the only weapon available.
Johnson's supporters - those who have publicly expressed concern about a fair trial in the racially charged atmosphere surrounding the case - include both the D.C. and Prince George's branches of the NAACP; the Metropolitan branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; The Concerned Clergy of Prince George's County and several D.C. clergymen; The Black United Front; and The Committee Against Racism. State Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr. posted most of Johnson's $100,000 bond before he was released on Oct. 17.
Support for Johnson is not the only reason the case has become a cause celebre. Equally concerned are many Prince George's County residents who take the side of the two slain policemen - Albert M. Claggett IV, 26, and James Brian Swart, 25, both of them sons of police officers.
Their supporters see Johnson as a young man who shot down two police officers; men who the public pays "to protect us from ourselves," in the words of the judge who set the original bond in excess of a million dollars.
The actions of these groups with such widely different interests and ideas has created an explosive situation already marked by protest marches, rallies, fund-raising festivals and dozens of newspaper articles and editors, and a hearing in a jam-packed courtroom with the kind of security not seen in Maryland since Arthur Bremer was brought to trial six years ago for shooting George Wallace.
To people like Smith, Elois Hamilton - chairman of the Terrence Johnson Defense Committee - and the others who have raised $10,000 toward Johnson's defense so far the issue is what happened in the police station during those pre-dawn hours in June.
They are concerned over the decision of state's attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. to try the case himself. Smith has argued frequently that Marshall should not prosecute Johnson personally because he has not tried a case in three years and because he did not personally seek indicments in last year's shootings by police officers.
"I begged Mr. Marshall to seek an indictment last January and he refused," Smith said. "But the minute a black youth is accused of shooting white policemen he is ready to prosecute."
"I didn't go before the jury to seek an indictment in the Johnson case either," Marshall said in defense of his position. "I have always made it a policy to prosecute shootings involving the police, whether they are the victims or the defendants."
No Prince George's County police officer has ever been indicted in a shooting incident.
They complain, however, that the case has attracted some people with different motives. "We have had problems at times with people who really aren't interested in Terrence trying to involve themselves," Hamilton said, "a lot of the rallies and marches . . . haven't had anything to with the defense fund. In fact, we've intentionally tried to disassociate ourselves from what they've been doing."
Hamilton doesn't identify this group by name, but the Committee Against Racism, a D.C. organization, staged two rallies outside the Hyattsville police station shortly after the June 26 shootings. At the first of them the media outnumbered the protesters.
Another group orgaized a march on the county detention center in Upper Marlboro which was attended only by two newspaper reporters and one television camera crew.
A rally outside the courthouse the day Johnson appeared for a determination on whether he should be tried as a juvenile or an adult drew about 60 chanting, singing protesters who waved banners that said "Free Terrence Johnson," and chanted as they marched into the courthouse.
"That infuriated me," said Hamilton. "We specifically did not want anything to happen that day that could antagonize the police or the judge. We had planned to go to the hearing and then go to church - quietly."
Sarah Harper, chairman of the Committee Against Racism, agrees that to her group the Johnson case is only a small part of a larger issue.
"The big issue here is police brutality, not just in Prince George's County but throughout the country," said Harper, whose group has about 50 members in the D.C. area. "There has been a rise in racist police brutality throughout the country lately. Brutality is one method the bosses use to suppress the workers."
Harper says her group has gone on walking tours throughout the community to encourage people to join them. "We had 25 people from the community at a second rally at Hyattsville in August," she said. "We were encouraged by that."
To the charges made by Hamilton that outside groups have hurt Johnson more than they have helped him, Harper has a ready answer.
"We would like to see him go free. But all they [the defense committee] are trying to do is raise money for one case.
"There are bigger issues at stake here. We don't want this to die out when the trial is over. Frankly, I don't see much chance of Johnson getting a fair trial. Look what happened at the waiver hearing [when Judge Vincent J. Femia ruled that Johnson would be tried as an adult]. He never had a chance there.
"The issue is police brutality. This is just one case. Our first concern has to be the cause itself."
Harper and her group have not had any contact with the Defense Committee. The Defense Committee has tried hard, according to Hamilton, not to become involved with other activist groups. To them, Terrence Johnson is the only issue.
R. Kenneth Mundy, a prominent Washington attorney hired by the defense committee to defend Johnson said, "The genesis of all this was the extremely poor handling of the situation by the police. They held a 15-year-year-old for more than half an hour without calling his parents. That's what started the whole thing.
"There's little question in my mind that this incident has polarized the community. Don't forget this is in the aftermath of two shootings of young black men within four weeks less than a year ago. I don't care how they cut it or masquerade it, if those shootings weren't criminal, they certainly approached the criminal.
"Everyone's aware of all these things. It contributes to a bad situation. And now you have a young man being put through an old man's nightmare long before his time."
The uneasy racial situation in the county makes many of Johnson's supporters nervous.
"Certainly it worries me," said Smith. "About the only way things could be worse in this county would be if you had fighting in the streets. Things don't have to get worse but they could. There is covert and overt racism throughout this community. This is what Terrence is up against.
"He's an average 15-year-old youngster. He's terribly scared but also glad to know that there are people who care about him. That's one of the reasons why this fund is so important. He needs to know that people care about what happens to him."
Since being released on bond, Johnson has been staying with friends to avoid any possible confrontations with police and to avoid the press.
At his hearing on whether to be tried as an adult, he appeared nervous but in control. He spoke quietly of his predicament, admitting that he was "scared of what could happen to me." But he showed no emotion when Femia announced his decision to try him as an adult.
"This is a case that should concern all of us throughout the country," said Smith. "It's implications are enormous. Our entire society is on trial here, not just one 15-year-old boy."
And Syivester Vaughns, former NAACP official who helped set up the defense fund when Johnson's mother, Helen, went to him seeking help, added, "There's no disguising the fact that this is a racial issue.
"We've been trying to get the police in this country to come into the 20th Century for years now. We've tried to avoid situations like this.
"Things have improved the past few years and I think the police deserve credit for it. They've worked at reducting the friction. But not enough has been done.
"But we still have to be careful not to try and make more of this issue than there is. I think some of these groups such as the one which demonstrated at Hyattsville are more interested in their own cause than in Terrence. We have to avoid those groups," Vaughns insisted.
"We've had real trouble with the media partly because many of them don't understand the difference between our group and the other groups," Garvin said. "They're ready to lump us all together and we shouldn't be."
"A lot of these people are trying to make Terrence into a political prisoner," Hamilton said. "We don't even have a prisoner yet."