Charges Against UVA's Martese Johnson Are Dropped — But None Are Pressed Against The Police Who Arrested Him, Either
On Thursday morning, charges were dropped against UVA student Martese Johnson, an African American student at the center of a violent arrest caught on video on March 18. Johnson was not allowed to enter the Trinity Irish Pub in Charlottesville and was violently thrown to the ground by Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) agents who suspected he possessed a fake ID. The rough nature of his arrest for public intoxication and obstruction of justice set off passionate student-led UVA campus protests against police racism and brutality.
Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney David Chapman made the decision to drop the charges after reviewing complete police investigation results, stating in a court filing:
Upon review of the evidence, the applicable principles of law and the best interest of the community, the Commonwealth reached a conclusion that the interest of justice is not served by further prosecution of the defendant in relation to the events of March 18.
However, Chapman also did not press charges against Virginia's ABC agents, more or less stating it would be in the community's best interests to treat the situation as a learning experience:
The interest of justice and the long term interest of the Charlottesville community are best served by using this case as an opportunity to engage ordinary citizens, law enforcement officers, and public officials in constructive dialogue concerning police and citizen relationships in a diverse community.
Despite actual footage of Johnson being roughly handled by police for little reason other than cursing and allegedly possessing a fake ID, as well as bystander reports of the agents' unprovoked and excessive brutality, Chapman raised eyebrows by claiming the findings did not warrant charges against the ABC officers who arrested Johnson. However, Chapman's decision was positively received by Martese Johnson. According to his attorney, Johnson would be content with quietly moving on.
Following his arrest on March 18, Johnson stated that the trauma of what the officers did would "stay with [him] forever," but a statement by his attorney, Daniel Watkins, on Thursday suggested the UVA student would be able to heal from the trauma of his experience. "When I notified him, he was truly ecstatic," Watkins said. "His future remains bright and he looks forward to moving on with his life now that this matter has been resolved."
However, Johnson must still go to court on Friday morning, when it is expected the prosecution will formally announce that it will no longer pursue the charges. "It has been our position all along that the Virginia ABC officers were not justified in their treatment of Mr. Johnson," Watkins said.
In March, following Johnson's arrest, the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) agent who arrested Johnson alleged that he was in possession of a fake ID, which Johnson’s attorney denied the following day. Bystanders also claimed Johnson had not even been intoxicated. In the arrest report, Johnson was described as “agitated and belligerent,” while the bar’s owner said that Johnson was “acting like a normal kid.” A video of the incident shows Johnson calling the police “racists,” and wondering aloud how the situation had spun out of control.
Johnson's attorney described how Virginia ABC agents immediately handcuffed Johnson and threw him onto the ground without provocation. "His face and skull [were] bleeding and needing surgery, all of this over two alleged offenses," Watkins said. Soon after the arrest, UVA administrators stated that they were outraged by the ABC agents' behavior, which they called "appalling brutality." At the end of March, Virginia's governor signed an executive order requiring ABC agents to be retrained. The Virginia State Police released a complete report on April 29.
Johnson has yet to release a public statement about recent events, but given Watkins' statements, it is likely his client will try to move on by maintaining a low-profile instead of committing to public activism. However, Johnson's bold statement following his arrest that his "head lay bloody, but unbowed" has nevertheless inspired bold student protests rallying under the now iconic "Black Lives Matter" slogan, and his character and story will no doubt be upheld as just another example of the pervasive issue of police racism and brutality in the United States. Johnson continues to attend the University of Virginia, where he is double-majoring in Italian and media studies. He also serves as a member of UVA's student-elected honor committee, which handles the school's honor code — and probably does a better job than his police equivalents on the streets of Charlottesville.
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