Confronting the Ghosts of Racism To Defend Rape Charges
Aug. 26, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Stephen Ross Johnson is one of the smartest legal minds in Knoxville. He’s an adjunct professor and criminal defense attorney with an obsession for tilting at legal windmills. It’s also very much apparent that he’s a realist willing to do everything in his power to keep A.J. Johnson’s case from devolving into a discussion of the dreaded phantasm that is “rape culture” on college campuses.
The case of A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, two former University of Tennessee Volunteer football stars accused of rape last November, carries with it the potential to involve a host of issues that were apparent to adversely affect his client. Football stars, one with an invitation to the NFL Combine rescinded in the wake of the allegations, and college students in a town that mandates garish orange and white come game day—accused of rape begs for some of the most sensationalist media coverage possible. It also carries with it the potential for the mob to start sharpening their pitchforks before the trial even begins.
That’s why Johnson went on the offensive in July for motion practice. The first motion, granted in the same month without objection, was to require potential jurors complete a written questionnaire regarding their beliefs on “campus violence, casual sex, group sex, race and UT Athletics.” Another asked the Court to order the parties accusing Johnson and Williams of rape to be referred to as “a complaining witness, accuser, or by her name” and to use the Tennessee statutory code number when referring to the offense.
Still another motion, filed by Williams’ counsel David Eldridge and joined by Johnson, asks to have a polygraph Williams took admitted as evidence to show the accused’s “state of mind.” The most recent motion asks for the State to turn over social media accounts and allow text messages into evidence that may show the encounter between Johnson, Williams, and their accusers was in fact consensual.
When Stephen Ross Johnson writes a motion, it’s always backed with law and facts, and is carefully worded to make even the most outlandish suggestion seem reasonable. He’s been in the trenches long enough to know what arguments will fly in the Scruffy City’s courtrooms, and he knows how and when to play to certain audiences.
He’s also doing everything in his power to carefully sidestep the fact that A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams are black men accused of raping two white women, and will do everything in his power to make sure the names “Channon Christian” and “Christopher Newsom” never cross the minds of any empaneled jury member if he can help it.
An almost eight-year-old crime involving two black men and one black woman in which two white college students were raped, tortured, and murdered, one even dumped in a trash can following her summary execution has been the silent specter haunting Knoxville for almost eight years. The case, which garnered plenty of local attention and a bit of national attention—was reopened four years ago after it was revealed Judge Richard Baumgardner had been abusing prescription pain medication during the trials of the three defendants and at times was so incapacitated in chambers his staff had to cancel all his hearings for the day multiple times.
The retrials for each defendant in the Channing-Newsom case are over, and all are still working their way through the post-conviction relief phase, but the impact of “black people raping white people” is still fresh on the minds of Knoxville’s citizenry and Johnson wants to make sure that it doesn’t adversely affect his client.
From an outsider’s perspective to the case, Stephen Ross Johnson’s actions are both the epitome of zealous advocacy for a client and an indictment of the justice system for black men and women as a whole in the South. Stephen Ross Johnson knows better than anyone else walking into this trial this is an uphill battle for both his client and David Eldridge’s, and he’s willing to do everything he can to level the playing field so race and the football factor don’t become sticking points for whatever jury gets selected to try the cases of Johnson and Williams.
It’s a disheartening thought they have to do such a thing in a system where people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but Stephen Ross Johnson and David Eldridge are doing the right thing by making sure they prepare their clients for the bias that will potentially occur in front of a jury.
This is realism and advocacy at its finest. Attorneys who take a case need to explain to the defendant not just how the case will be viewed theoretically in a given jurisdiction, they need to explain to their client just how the case will be viewed in the same jurisdiction given their background, circumstances, and any other factor that may play into the client’s potential verdict.
After doing that, they need to play to the audience they’ve got and make sure those potentially negative factors, no matter how ugly they may seem, are mitigated as best they can. Idealism has no place in the trenches. Realism does.
Stephen Ross Johnson gets it. David Eldridge gets it. So should every defense attorney, less their clients suffer as a result.