In an outcome that frustrated many, a deadlocked jury led a state district judge to declare a mistrial Wednesday in the case of a Fort Worth police officer accused of shooting a mentally ill man by recklessly handling his shotgun.
The jury, like some who watched the trial proceedings, was strongly divided on the verdict.
“You could see in the courtroom it brought a real split,” said Jim Lane, an attorney for accused officer Courtney Johnson. “There was a lot of tension in there.”
Lane said the jury was divided 5-to-7 but he did not know whether the majority favored guilty or not guilty.
Johnson, 35, was accused of shooting Craigory Adams, 56, at about 3:30 a.m. June 23, 2015, by recklessly handling his shotgun while responding to a call about a person with a weapon. The two-count indictment accused Johnson of taking his gun off safety and sliding the pump action back, then forward as the weapon was pointed toward Adams. The shotgun fired, hitting Adams in the arm.
The officer has said that based on information from the 911 call taker, he thought Adams was holding a knife, but it was actually a barbecue fork. Johnson’s attorneys, Tim Choy and Lane, maintained that the shooting was accidental but acknowledged that the case may have been difficult for jurors to understand.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said in a statement that her office would decide whether to bring charges again.
“We will consider the jury’s inability to reach a verdict and the evidence presented at trial to decide whether a retrial is justified,” the statement said.
Johnson is expected to remain on restricted duty until the case is resolved for good, Lane said. Had there been a guilty verdict, Johnson’s career as a police officer or a teacher — he taught and coached at an Irving high school before going into law enforcement — would have been over, Lane said.
Tarrant County prosecutors Tamla Ray and Jacob Mitchell tried to convince jurors that Johnson ignored safeguards from his training that might have kept Adams from being wounded.
During closing arguments, Mitchell said the police initially told Adams’ relatives that he had attacked a police officer with a knife and been injured as a result.
“You saw detectives who were on the scene testifying to events that never happened,” Mitchell said.
He pointed out that Johnson had days after the shooting to gather his thoughts and review evidence before making a statement to investigators. By contrast, detectives interviewed Adams while he was in the hospital recovering from surgery and was groggy from pain medication, Mitchell said.
“Craigory wasn’t given the opportunity to watch the video before he made a statement,” Mitchell said.
Ray told the jury that if it had not been for Johnson’s dashcam video, police may have stuck with their initial story — that a suspect attacked a police officer with a knife and was shot.
“Thank God for that videotape,” Ray said.
Lane said those remarks made it seem like Ray was telling people not to trust the police.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Lane said. “To believe that, you’d have to believe [the resident who called the police] made up the 911 tape.”
Johnson testified that he rushed to the call because of the report of a knife but that he had not made a conscious decision to fire his weapon as he got out of his patrol vehicle. He acknowledged that Adams never presented a deadly threat.
Ray argued that had Johnson taken more time, he might have seen that some of the assumptions he was making about Adams were incorrect, including that he was not armed with a knife.
“If he had slowed down, he would have seen that Mr. Adams was moving a little slow, he was thinking a little slow,” Ray told jurors. “The defendant told you that this victim did not deserve to be shot. This was not a justified shooting.”
Johnson did not know that Adams’ niece had tried to get him committed because of his mental illness, Lane said.
“She wanted him off the streets,” Lane said.
Adams admitted that on the night of the shooting he had not been taking his medication as prescribed and was having “racing thoughts.”
Ray was operating with a set of facts that Johnson did not have and the jury had to decide the case from the officer’s perspective at the time of the shooting, Lane said.
Lane said that police training procedures may be changed because they learned in this case that a shotgun can be accidentally fired because of an unintentional physical response called contra-lateral contraction, or a sympathetic reflex. A witness described it as the muscles in one hand involuntarily mimicking what the other hand is doing.
“Police officers, they serve and protect, but you know what, they want to go home, too,” Lane said. “They rely on their basic training and their experience. That young man did not have any intention to shoot Mr. Adams. This was an unintentional discharge.”
The city of Fort Worth released a statement after the mistrial was declared, saying: “Clearly, this was a challenging set of circumstances for the jurors to evaluate, but we have faith in the judicial process. These events have deeply affected both the Adams and Johnson families, and we know it’s stressful that a final decision could not be reached. ”
Leon Reed, an African-American attorney who watched much of the trial from the gallery, said he was disappointed that the jury did not reach a guilty verdict.
“Right now, as it stands today, a citizen can get shot and the only thing a police officer has to say is one of two things,” Reed said. “ ‘I was in fear of my life,’ or now they can just say ‘Oops, my bad. It was an accident. I had a sympathetic reaction from my other hand and I shot you. No harm, no foul.’ Which means there is no ramification for doing it wrong. Which means there is no incentive for doing it right.”
Jacqueline Craig, the woman at the center of a viral video arrest in December involving another Fort Worth police officer, William Martin, called the outcome of the trial “crazy.” Like Reed, she watched the trial from the gallery.
“I’m really hurt right now because I have to accept the fact that as African-Americans, our tax dollars are actually paying police officers to murder and brutalize us,” Craig said. “We don’t get the justice that we deserve here.”
The video of Craig’s arrest and her two daughters sparked an outcry from the African-American community about the officer’s behavior. Martin was later suspended for 10 days. The city is still reeling from the incident.
Mark Kirkland, an African-American pastor who also watched the trial, said Johnson’s defense was manufactured and expressed frustration that there were no consequences for the bad decisions that Johnson made.
“It’s hard for me to tell my son to do exactly what the police say and expect for him to come home at night,” Kirkland said. “Mayor [Betsy] Price says she wants this city to heal. We can’t begin to heal until we’re transparent. We’re pleading with Sharen Wilson’s office to please retry this case.”