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U-Va. student bloodied in arrest reaches settlement with the state

Martese Johnson speaking with reporters outside a Charlottesville courthouse in 2015 with attorney Daniel P. Watkins. (Ryan M. Kelly/Daily Progress via AP)

A former University of Virginia student and the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority have reached a settlement in a case that drew national attention to issues of race and policing.

Martese Johnson was a 20-year-old U-Va. student when he was stopped by beverage control officers after he was denied entry to an Irish bar near campus during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 2015. The officers alleged in court documents that Johnson acted belligerently during his arrest, but photos of Johnson lying on the ground with blood on his face went viral. He needed 10 stitches to close a gash in his head.

In the fall of 2015, Johnson filed a federal lawsuit against the beverage control agency and the three officers involved in the arrest.

Johnson, who graduated from U-Va. in 2016 and plans to attend the University of Michigan Law School in the fall, declined to comment on the case Wednesday, referring questions to a joint statement. Nigel Wilkinson, an attorney representing Johnson, also referred to the statement.

Attorneys acting for Alcoholic Beverage Control did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Dawn Eischen, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the settlement amount was $249,950.

In a joint statement published on the Virginia ABC website, the sides announced they had reached a resolution of the lawsuit. The statement said: “The interests of justice and the long term interests of the community are best served, not through continued and protracted litigation, but by taking the events as an opportunity to educate the public and foster constructive dialogue between ordinary citizens, law enforcement officers, and public officials concerning police and citizen relationships in a diverse community.”

The agreement included no admission of liability or wrongdoing by either party.

Martese Johnson, free of charges, tackles issues of race on U-Va. campus

In 2015, hundreds of students marched in protest of the way officers had treated Johnson, who was an elected representative to the school’s Honor Committee.

Johnson was charged with two misdemeanors: obstruction of justice without force, and profane swearing and/or intoxication in public. Those charges were dropped a few months later.

Daniel P. Watkins, an attorney who initially represented Johnson but was not involved with the civil suit, said the arrest resonated nationally because when people think of college students drinking, “one of the last things that comes to mind is the possibility of police brutality.” People more often think of police officers near campuses keeping students safe, rather than enforcing the drinking age, he said in an interview Wednesday. The images and video that circulated on social media — with Johnson screaming on the ground, blood streaming down his face — stunned many people.

The fact that he was a bright young college student without a criminal record threw his treatment into stark relief, as well. “This would never happen to someone who’s white,” Watkins said.

Martese Johnson is held down by an officer in 2015 in Charlottesville. (Bryan Beaubrun via AP)