A decorated retired Army major and counterintelligence official, drunk and angry on Christmas Eve in 2017, shot and wounded two Loudoun County sheriff’s deputies who were trying to arrest him after a domestic dispute.
“I was surprised that there wasn’t more leeway in the sentencing and we were not really allowed to ask any questions,” said Regina Hart, one of five jurors who signed affidavits for the defense saying they thought Johnson deserved a chance to be released earlier.
“We decided to sentence him to the minimum number of years that we could,” which was “too long,” foreman Ronald Williams said in an affidavit.
It is unclear what the other seven jurors think. Johnson’s attorney, Edward Ungvarsky, said he was “unable to discuss sentencing and obtain affidavits” from them. He is asking that the judge, who can lessen the jury’s punishment, order Johnson to serve a 20-year sentence.
A prosecutor argued after the trial for “something more than the minimums . . . when you almost kill two police officers who are just trying to do their job on Christmas Eve and get home to their families.”
Virginia is one of only a handful of states where juries decide sentences and one of two where they are required to do so. (The other is Kentucky.) Critics of the current system, including recently elected prosecutors in Arlington and Fairfax, say it leads to unduly harsh sentences. They are pushing for a legislative change that would allow a person to be tried by a jury but sentenced by a judge, as part of a package of criminal justice changes under debate in the state legislature.
“It’s an archaic, ancient, 18th-century hangover that virtually every other state has abolished because it doesn’t work,” state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said of the current law.
Of the criminal justice measures under debate in Richmond, he said, “this bill will affect by far the most the lives of Virginians.”
Unlike judges, jurors are not allowed to suspend part of a mandatory sentence or run prison terms concurrently rather than consecutively. They are also not told sentencing guidelines. While both sides have time to prepare to go before a judge, jury sentencing happens immediately after a trial ends.
While judges can reduce a jury sentence, according to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, they generally choose not to. Such a modification happened in 9 percent of cases last year.
Defense attorneys say their clients are thus pressured into pleading guilty for fear of a harsher jury sentence. About 1 percent of criminal cases in the state result in a jury trial.
Opponents argue that the legislation would overload the system and force prosecutors to be too lenient in offers of plea agreements in order to keep up with caseloads.
“It’s going to increase many times over the number of jury trials,” said Jeff Haislip, president of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. “If the court system is completely bottlenecked . . . it’s not feasible financially.”
Johnson is also challenging his conviction on the grounds that his jury was all White, when a Black man was qualified to serve. The judge overseeing the case dismissed that challenge last week, finding that prosecutors eliminated the Black potential juror not for racial reasons but over a driving-while-intoxicated conviction.
Hart said she and the other jurors at Johnson’s trial asked whether the sentences they imposed could run together and were rebuffed. Some were under the mistaken impression that he would soon be eligible for parole. In Virginia, only the elderly and people who committed their crimes as juveniles are eligible.
“It’s very sad; I was very depressed after that trial, really,” she said. “Because he threw his life away on those few minutes.”
The few minutes occurred three years ago at Johnson’s home in Sterling, Va. The following account is drawn from testimony at last year’s trial and other court records.
Johnson was trying to reconcile with his wife after years of acrimony. It was the first time their whole family had been together in four years, and it was not going well. Already susceptible to depression and alcoholism, he developed post-traumatic stress disorder after years of combat deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he feared that getting mental health treatment would jeopardize his top-secret security clearance and his job in the National Counterterrorism Center. Instead, he turned back to alcohol, an addiction he had fought since his early teens.
He and his wife had fought the night before Christmas Eve; when his daughter tried to clean up a broken glass, he fought her over the broom, which hit her in the face. She took the clip out of one of his guns, fearing he would shoot himself. The next day, Johnson went to a bar and got drunk on gin and beer, followed by half an Ambien. That evening, he repeatedly shoved his daughter out of the house, one time tearing her jacket. She called 911.
“It was a completely different person that I had ever met my entire nineteen years of having him in my life,” she wrote in a letter to the judge. “The rage and upset is something I had never seen before in him . . . it was almost as if he wasn’t there.”
When sheriff’s deputies arrived, they interviewed Johnson and his daughter. When he learned he would be arrested, Johnson retreated to a bedroom closet, where he had a loaded M1911 pistol from his military service.
He later testified that he thought about his security clearance, which would be jeopardized by an arrest. He began screaming for his family. Deputies asked him to come out; he ignored them.
“For the last 15 years, I stayed away from getting help when I know I needed to get help,” he later testified. “I just was ready for it to just be over.”
One deputy jumped on top of him; another deployed his Taser, although it’s unclear whether it took effect before Johnson fired his gun. Undisputed is that Johnson fired three times, shooting one deputy in the leg and another in the leg and the arm.
Johnson testified that he had no memory of firing his weapon, only of being hit with the Taser: “I thought I was dead. It was peaceful and I was happy about that.”
Despite their injuries, the deputies managed to disarm Johnson without further violence. Although they managed to return to duty within months, both were left with permanent injuries and scars.
One of the deputies declined to comment for this article; the other did not return a call for comment. The Loudoun Sheriff’s Office referred a request for comment to prosecutors.
At trial, prosecutors painted Johnson as an angry, controlling man who knew what he was doing that night.
“He could not fathom anyone disrupting his status as the king of his castle,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy McMullen said in her opening statement.
The jury convicted Johnson of attempted capital murder, malicious wounding, discharging a firearm within an occupied building and two other firearm crimes.
Yet Hart said none of them wanted to see him serve what would effectively be a life sentence.
“Mr. Johnson has PTSD and he should receive treatment for that,” another juror wrote in her affidavit. “If Mr. Johnson is able to get that treatment, I think his sentence should be reduced.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj was elected last year as a liberal reformer; one of the two prosecutors who handled Johnson’s trial campaigned against her. She has said mandatory minimums should be eliminated, juries should be more diverse, and jurors should get more information and flexibility at sentencing.
But she said her office was prepared to recommend the jury sentence.
“It’s a very complex case,” she said, and ultimately, “the jury came back with 74 years.”