CHARLOTTESVILLE — University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was doing nothing wrong the night he ended up bloodied and in a jail cell after an encounter with state Alcoholic Beverage Control officers, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman spent more than two hours publicly laying out the evidence from a Virginia State Police investigation into the 33-second incident early March 18 during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Photographs depicting Johnson, who is black, on the ground underneath a white officer went viral online and sparked protests on the U-Va. campus.
Although Johnson was arrested and charged, Chapman said he felt a moral obligation to drop the charges of public intoxication and resisting arrest.
“It would just be wrong to prosecute this guy,” Chapman said. “He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was innocent.”
Chapman said that the ABC police officers acted lawfully when they stopped Johnson outside of the Trinity Irish Pub adjacent to campus. He also acknowledged that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Johnson on charges that the Chicago native aggressively resisted the police officer’s efforts to detain him.
“I wished he used different judgment,” Chapman said. “But that doesn’t mean we should give that young man who came a long way to the University of Virginia a criminal record.”
Chapman detailed the State Police report, which relied on video evidence and interviews and statements from 52 individuals, including the ABC officers, Johnson and witnesses at the scene. Chapman said the witnesses represented a diverse swath of Charlottesville’s community.
The entire episode occurred between 12:48 a.m. and 12:49 a.m. March 18. Chapman said the central facts of the incident are clear:
●Johnson approached the entrance to Trinity and presented his valid Illinois identification in an attempt to get in.
●Johnson was turned away by the bar owner at the door, who noted a discrepancy in the way Johnson answered a question about the Zip code on his ID.●
●Immediately afterward, an ABC officer walked up to Johnson from behind and touched his arm. Caught by surprise, Johnson pulled his arm out of the officer’s grasp.
●Two ABC officers grabbed Johnson’s arms, and in a scuffle the three fell in a pile onto the sidewalk, leaving Johnson with a head injury and blood streaming down his face.
●Swearing loudly, Johnson was then placed in handcuffs and had his legs shackled.
“This gentleman wasn’t doing anything wrong, and he ends up on the ground with his head banged,” Chapman said. “A broad spectrum of people would use profound language in those circumstances, and I’m fine with that.”
Students with cellphones captured the exchange in stunning images that showed Johnson howling, his face dripping with blood. One of the 1,000 video cameras operated by the U-Va. police force also recorded most of the incident.
But the prosecutor noted that despite all of the evidence, much of what happened during the seconds-long interaction between Johnson and the police is not certain.
Did the police intentionally tackle Johnson to the pavement? Did the U-Va. student knowingly resist the officer’s attempts to detain him? Through interviews with Johnson’s friends, State Police found that Johnson had been drinking that night, but the report did not include an accurate reading of his blood alcohol level. Chapman also said there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute Johnson on the public intoxication charge.
Chapman noted that police legally had “reasonable suspicion” to stop Johnson to see whether he was using a fake ID when the bar owner denied him entry. The officers also had probable cause to arrest him after he unlawfully resisted the detention, Chapman said.
But the evidence shows that Johnson, who was 20 at the time — he turned 21 Wednesday — did not break the law when he sought to enter the bar. In Virginia, underage people are allowed inside a bar at anytime, Chapman said, but they just can’t purchase or consume alcohol while there.
The prosecutor also noted that there was no evidence showing the arrest was racially motivated.
“Had we thought for a moment that malice, that racial animosity or intentional or reckless disregard of their authority as sworn law enforcement officers had existed, we would not have hesitated to pursue charges against anyone who was so involved,” said Chapman, who credited the officers with keeping calm during the tense standoff.
Chapman said that it is “unquestionably clear that no one wants their son or daughter or brother, their sister or friend to receive an injury in a physical encounter with a police officer. We can all be thankful that Martese Johnson was not more significantly injured on March 18 of this year than he was. It could easily have been different.”
Daniel P. Watkins, Johnson’s attorney, said in a statement Wednesday that he and his client challenge the idea that the officers had a reason to approach and grab Johnson.
“A young man of eminent abilities, industry, and popularity was slammed to the ground, substantially injured, jailed, and subsequently arrested for two misdemeanors,” Watkins said. “Our position is and always has been that police lacked justification to seize Mr. Johnson. . . . We are thankful that the criminal prosecution against Mr. Johnson has been terminated and he is excited today to celebrate his 21st birthday in a safe and responsible manner.”