Duanna Johnson civil rights trial update

April 14, 2010

Duanna JohnsonIt’s now nearly eighteen months since Duanna Johnson was shot dead and, as far as I’m aware, no one’s been charged with her murder, although I gather that her family is considering a lawsuit against the city of Memphis.

However, the trial of former Memphis Police officer Bridges McRae in connection with the earlier beating of Ms Johnson in February 2008 is under way and starting to receive some media coverage.

As I understand it, the trial hinges on two related points: first, deciding whether Ms Johnson was involved in a fight or was beaten, and second, whether her civil rights were violated. If convicted of the charge of civil rights violations, Mr McRae could, in theory, face a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a maximum $250,000 fine.

Testifying for the prosecution, James Swain [the probationary officer who held Ms Johnson down while Mr McRae beat her] said he watched officer Bridges “Sutton” McRae use his metal handcuffs like brass knuckles to punch the prisoner several times in the head in the sally port of the jail.


“McRae kept hitting Johnson multiple times in the head,” said Swain, a probationary officer released by the department. “Johnson was bleeding profusely from the head. It was a beatdown. It never should have happened. … (McRae) walked by and said ‘I love to fight.’ He was very aggressive and had his chest puffed out. I was speechless.” [Via]

Whether any credence will be given to Mr Swain’s testimony is another matter, given that he has admitted that “he initially lied to police internal affairs investigators in telling them that Johnson was the aggressor”.

“I didn’t want to be the police officer to be the rat or the snitch on another police officer,” said Swain, who changed his account when he learned there was a videotape of the incident. “(Authorities) said if I tell the truth I would not be prosecuted.” [Via]

It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that Mr McRae, in his testimony, is claiming that he acted in self-defence:

McRae then testified once the uncuffed Johnson reached the booking area Johnson allegedly became more belligerent and actively resistant, refusing his numerous and firm requests to have a thumbprint made.


McRae testified when he decided he’d cuff Johnson again because he feared she was getting “completely out of control,” Johnson grabbed his right arm and jerked him which he alleges suddenly made him “startled, scared and afraid.” He said he operated on instinct to act in self-defense.

In court, he demonstrated how he held the handcuffs he would use only to ward off the aggressive Johnson, who he says slapped and kicked him, causing him bodily harm in the form of cuts and a gash in his head.

McRae concluded Johnson assaulted him as other officers watched the fracas and did nothing to help him. [Via]

But let’s not forget Ms Johnson’s account of the incident as reported in June 2008:

“Actually he was trying to get me to come over to where he was, and I responded by telling him that wasn’t my name – that my mother didn’t name me a ‘faggot’ or a ‘he-she,’ so he got upset and approached me. And that’s when it started,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the officer was attempting to call her over to be fingerprinted. She said she chose not respond to the derogatory name the officer called her.

“He said, ‘I’m telling you, I’m giving you one more chance to get up.’ So I’m looking at him, and he started putting his gloves on, and seen him take out a pair of handcuffs,” Johnson said.

The officer hit Johnson several times with the handcuffs wrapped around his knuckles. In the video, you can see the flash of the metal. The tape shows another officer holding Johnson’s shoulders as she tries to protect herself.

After taking several blows, Johnson stands up and swings back.

“I was afraid. I had had enough. Like I said, I thought the other officers that were witnessing this would at least try to stop him,” Johnson said. “I mean, he hit me so hard. Like the third time he hit me, it split my skull and I had blood coming out. So I jumped up,” Johnson said.

But then she sat back down, and the officer her in the face again. Then he maced her. On the tape, other people in the room are seen turning away and fanning their hands because of the smell.


On the tape, Duanna is eventually handcuffed and left on the floor. A nurse comes in, and goes directly to the officer.

“I couldn’t breathe, and they just made me lay there,” Johnson said. “Nobody checked to see if I was okay. My eyes were burning. My skin was burning. I was scared to death. Even the nurse came in and she just ignored me, and I begged her to help me.” [Via]

The case is expected to go before the jurors today (Wednesday).

Video posted on YouTube December 13, 2008


Cross-posted at Questioning Transphobia


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