Johnson, 42, was convicted of two counts of attempted capital murder and other serious crimes for opening fire on two Loudoun County sheriff’s deputies who had come to arrest him on domestic abuse charges at his Sterling home on Christmas Eve in 2017. Johnson had been drinking heavily.
“At a certain time and place, you were suffering perhaps because of mental illness or perhaps because of alcohol or substance issues,” Fisher said. “You made a very bad decision.”
The case has been highlighted by Virginia lawmakers, who are considering a bill that would allow defendants to be tried by jury but sentenced by a judge as part of a package of criminal justice overhauls being debated at a special session. Judges have more flexibility in setting punishments.
Virginia is one of only two states that require juries to determine sentences, a practice detractors say leads to unduly harsh terms. They also say it also pressures defendants to accept plea deals, instead of risking conviction and a long sentence by a jury.
Edward Ungvarsky, Johnson’s attorney, hoped the statements he collected from jurors about their misgivings about the sentence might sway Fisher to give his client a 20-year term. Jurors cited a range of reasons for their change of heart.
“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 the jurors who signed an affidavit for the defense.
Foreman Ronald Williams said in his affidavit that they sentenced Johnson “to the minimum number of years that we could,” but that was “too long.” Some jurors also mistakenly thought Johnson would soon be eligible for parole.
In addition to the jury’s regrets, Ungvarsky argued that Johnson deserved a lighter sentence because he served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that left him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems.
Ungvarsky said his client had overcome early struggles with alcoholism to graduate from high school and then college with honors, before embarking on a military career. Johnson had a top-security clearance and worked for the National Counterterrorism Center. Nearly 50 people wrote letters of support for Johnson before the sentencing.
The Loudoun County NAACP also weighed in on the case, saying Johnson’s mental health struggles should have been given more consideration in sentencing. Ungvarsky and the NAACP also raised concerns that an all-White jury convicted Johnson, who is Black. A potential Black juror was struck from the jury pool by prosecutors, but a judge has concluded it was not for racial reasons.
Fisher, who acknowledged Johnson’s service, appeared to be swayed by testimony from the deputies who were shot and their families, who described in gripping detail the physical and emotional fallout from the shooting.
Anna Iversen, the wife of Sheriff’s Deputy Timothy Iversen, said she and her son were waiting for her husband to arrive home on Dec. 24, 2017, to celebrate their first Christmas together. They had built a gingerbread house and wrapped Christmas pajamas and placed them beneath a tree, before a deputy knocked on the door saying her husband had been shot.
Anna Iversen raced to the hospital, where she testified that she found her husband covered in blood and hooked up to lifesaving equipment after being hit by three slugs in the arm and both legs. “Hey, honey,” he somehow managed to joke. “I got shot.”
Anna Iversen said months of physical therapy followed and her husband suffered lead poisoning from the bullets that lodged in his body. Her 7-year-old son was deeply affected.
Sheriff’s Deputy Katherine Grimley testified that she had trouble sleeping after being shot in the leg during the incident.
“Anytime I would close my eyes,” Grimley testified, “I heard the gunshots ring out.”
Before he was sentenced, Johnson rose in a green jail jumpsuit to express his sorrow about what happened.
“It was my chaos,” Johnson told Fisher. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could take that pain on as my own.”