She took a stand to testify

Times Staff Writer

Debra Johnson was poor, skinny, asthmatic, addicted to crack cocaine and spent her days pushing a shopping cart. She had a record of petty, narcotic-related crimes. In short, she wasn't the type of person usually associated with heroism.

But when Johnson was asked to risk her life for a civic duty, she did what most witnesses of gang homicides in South Los Angeles don't: She testified.

She did so even though the killers had done their best to silence her. They fired a bullet into her chest at close range, then another into her face, shattering her upper jaw and palate. Six surgeries later, she still had difficulty breathing and speaking, and needed a prosthetic to cover a hole in the roof of her mouth.

Yet despite pain and fear, she twice took the stand to ensure that the attackers were jailed.

Witnesses' reluctance to cooperate with authorities, or "snitch," is often depicted as the product of a moral malaise.

Critics have focused on a wave of anti-snitching songs, T-shirts and DVDs. "Symptoms of a depressing cultural illness," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called the phenomenon.

But Johnson's story shows what is at stake for many witnesses to gang violence -- how deeply rooted their fear, how few their rewards and how powerless their status. "I don't think we have ever had a gang case where the specter of fear didn't raise its head for at least one witness," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Halim Dhanidina, whose unit focuses on gang cases. "It's a colossal problem."

Johnson's resolve under such circumstances was especially striking, according to detectives and prosecutors. Det. Mark Hahn of the LAPD's Southeast Division described the 5-foot-5, 115-pound Johnson as a spirited witness who cooperated with humor and enthusiasm.

Johnson was one of eight children of a Watts couple. She was an orphan by 13, her father dying of natural causes and her mother killed in a house fire.

Johnson was taken in by her aunt, Dorothy McCann. She was slight, energetic and "kinda sassy-like," McCann said -- a description that held throughout her life, other relatives said.

Family members disagreed about whether she graduated from high school, though they said she attended several before moving in with a much older man. She never held a job. She did drugs. She was on parole. She lived with companions or siblings, spending time in the Antelope Valley and Watts. For periods, she disappeared.

BUT Johnson was loved. Family members talked of her sense of drama and her nicknames for everyone she knew -- her aunt was "sweetie" and a small cousin was "ladybug." She loved to bat her eyelashes and play the coquette, cousin Aleathia Scott said.

On April 6, 2004, Johnson was with a close friend, Annette Anderson, in an apartment in the Nickerson Gardens public housing project in Watts.

Also staying in the apartment was George Brooks, 29. About 3:30 a.m., two men arrived, seeking Brooks in a dispute over drug proceeds. They came in shooting.

Johnson was asleep in the living room. In court, she described lying on the floor, watching as the kitchen lighted up with multiple shots, "just like a Molotov cocktail," she said, according to transcripts. Brooks was in the tiny dining room. He died in a barrage of close-range gunfire so massive that his face collapsed -- "holes within holes," Hahn said.

The assailants, who police say were armed with a .357 magnum Desert Eagle and a 9 millimeter pistol, then concentrated on eliminating witnesses.

Anderson was shot through the head, then shot again through the chest for good measure as she lay on her back, Hahn's partner, Det. Roger Allen, said.

Another of Anderson's guests was taking cover under the kitchen table. Parts of her jaw and tongue were shot off, and her body was riddled with bullets. Johnson was still on the living room floor when a gunman came for her. She looked up into the black barrel of a gun, and a face she recognized beyond it, she testified.

Johnson threw up an arm to protect herself. The first bullet passed through the upraised arm then "in and out of my mouth," she said. "I was sitting up, spitting out my teeth and then my gums.... I said, 'Somebody please help me.' " Another bullet slammed through her chest.

She was on the floor. She played dead. She watched as an attacker crept out of the house. Then she heard shouts and sirens.

When the paramedics arrived, they found a crime scene bathed in blood. Brooks and Anderson were dead. The guest with the shattered jaw was still alive and trying to crawl across the kitchen floor. Johnson remained in the living room, conscious and struggling to breathe.

A few hours later, Johnson was strapped to a bed in an intensive care unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. When her brother Michael came to identify her, he didn't recognize her at first. "It was so bad -- her tongue sticking out, her face all blowed up.... I've never seen anything like that," he said.

Her aunt remembers when Johnson became conscious enough to communicate: "I thought I was going to die," were the first words she scribbled in a notebook. Johnson had a skin graft taken from her leg for the roof of her mouth and was only able to talk by means of a prosthetic.

Her brother and sister-in-law cared for her after her monthlong hospital stay. She needed oxygen and couldn't control her saliva.

In the real world of Los Angeles gang violence, "CSI"-style forensics evidence is pure mythology. Prosecutions commonly hang on the thin thread of witnesses' consciences.

Hahn and Allen, the two detectives assigned to the case, were anxious to visit Johnson's bedside as soon as she was conscious. But Johnson, who now knew the ruthless punishment for those who might talk, was obviously scared, Hahn said.

Federal witness protection programs, which involve elaborate secrecy and tens of thousands of dollars, are not available to those testifying in state court cases. Typically, they are offered only a few months' rent on a new apartment and a moving truck. With such enticements, detectives such as Hahn and Allen are used to being rebuffed. They made their best pitch and left their cards.

A few days after their visit, Johnson's brother called. His sister had decided to cooperate. Michael Johnson said his sister was deeply angry at the attackers, but also terrified of retaliation. Ultimately, faith conquered fear: "I said, 'Don't be scared. God's got us,' " Michael Johnson recalled telling her.

THE detectives were thrilled: Not only did Debra Johnson decide to identify her assailant, she displayed, on notepaper, what they described as an astonishingly precise and detailed memory of the entire episode.

"It was extraordinary," Dhanidina said, "the sequence of events, where everyone was ... how they moved through the apartment ... the two kinds of guns, what it looked like."

Hahn and Allen relocated Johnson. But they worried that a lapse in judgment could lure her back to Nickerson, where someone might want her dead. Her brother and his wife worried too: Though she hid it well, Johnson was emotionally distraught each time she looked in the mirror, said the wife, Zina Johnson. Crack was luring her back to the street.

In the months before her scheduled court appearances, the detectives visited her often, trying to keep her sober.

On one such visit, Johnson greeted both detectives with hugs.

She wore hoop earrings, slippers and a brown satin shirt with an open collar that revealed a bullet scar in the middle of her chest. Her hair was pulled back in a neat braid. Her lower teeth jutted out crookedly in her underslung jaw. She had no upper teeth, and when she tried to speak, her mouth appeared locked in an O-shape. A scar joined what remained of her upper lip to her nose. Inside her mouth, a white prosthetic was visible, hanging from the roof of her mouth.

Her apartment was decorated with pictures of the crucified Christ. She sat on a corner of a chair, jumping up to check the chicken on the stove as the detectives talked. Her speech was badly distorted but understandable, her eyes strikingly expressive.

Hahn, the more serious of the two detectives, sat down in a chair jammed uncomfortably close to hers, and pleaded with her to stay off the streets.

Allen broke in, his manner teasing -- more to Johnson's taste. "Call us," he told her. "We actually like you! Most people we don't like." Johnson bent over with laughter, clapping her hands with delight. Later, she hugged them again at the door. "My buddies!" she called them.

"She looks awfully thin," Hahn muttered softly as they walked to the car.

Family members worried also. But from the moment she made up her mind to testify, she seemed to show no fear. With theatrical flair, she would reenact for relatives the moment when she pointed an accusing finger across the courtroom.

When Hahn and Allen came to pick her up for the trial, they found her dressed as if for the theater in high heels and some kind of faux "chinchilla" coat with feathers around the collar. Loose feathers flew off as she walked, Allen recalled. She joked good-naturedly with the detectives in the car. Allen bought her lunch and although people did double takes at her injured face, Johnson did not seem self-conscious, the detective recalled.

She testified with such headlong eagerness that Dhanidina had to ask her repeatedly to slow down so the court reporter could catch up. Her account was sure and emphatic, punctuated with such phrases as, "that's just how it was!" and "like I told you."

DURING cross-examination, she was peppery with the defense. "You can't cross me. Cross yourself!" she told an attorney who disputed part of her testimony.

Johnson had been "extremely effective" on the stand, Dhanidina said. Jurors asked to have her testimony read back during deliberations, he noted. One defendant in the case, Kai Harris, was convicted on a murder charge in July. The jury split on the question of whether he should receive the death penalty. That phase of the case will be retried. The second defendant, Donte McDaniel, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a separate trial. Lawyers for both men declined to comment for this report.

On Sept. 20, Johnson died. She was 45 and had suffered a severe asthma attack. Johnson's family members believe her injuries were a reason, though the Los Angeles County coroner ruled that asthma was the cause, with years of cocaine abuse a contributing factor.

PROSECUTORS plan to submit her transcribed testimony in McDaniel's upcoming trial, Dhanidina said, though the absence of Johnson's verve and conviction on the stand will hurt their case, he said. Still, her family sees significance that she survived such a near brush with death just long enough to testify. "The Lord brought her back for that purpose," her brother said. "It was a job well done."

Family members gathered in St. Paul's Baptist Church for Johnson's funeral.

She lay in a partially open white casket covered with red roses and white calla lilies, her delicate, flawless nose and underslung jaw surrounded by a sea of white cloth. Two pink neon crosses glowed behind the pulpit. Light poured through stained-glass windows onto the mourners. The Rev. Kenneth Anderson began with a Bible verse: "I have fought a good fight ... "

The pastor made no specific mention of her testimony. But Johnson's cooperation remained on the minds of some mourners. "I'm glad she lived to testify," Scott said, standing on the church steps before the service. "It's rare for someone to do that in Los Angeles."

Other family members had more mixed feelings. Though supportive of her decision, they pointed out that Johnson was denied the most minimal victims' assistance money because she was on parole.

She got no reward. Nor did the family get the state funeral assistance often offered to crime victims: Her brother used rent money to help with the burial. The detectives stuck by her, but "the system used her," Zina Johnson said.

Hahn acknowledged that Johnson demonstrated courage in testifying. But he believes most fear of gang retaliation is more a matter of perception than reality. Killings of witnesses are extremely rare, he noted; nearly all witnesses testify with no repercussions.

Dhanidina had a different view. Even a 1% chance of being murdered "is huge," he said. Dhanidina pointed out with bitterness that many well-heeled and educated people view jury duty as an insupportable inconvenience when their service pales by comparison to that of witnesses such as Johnson. "Frankly," he said, "it's offensive."

WHY did Johnson choose to testify? Police and family members said they believed that her motives were more personal than public-spirited. She had suffered and people she cared about had been attacked. "She didn't want them to get away with this," her aunt said. "She didn't want someone else to have to go through what she did."

Scott, the cousin, said society looks down on people such as Johnson. Too few resources are channeled toward witness safety, she contended.

Johnson "had a lot of shortcomings. But she should never be dehumanized," Scott said. "Her life was not in vain. She took some criminals off the street. Some people live a hundred years and never do anything. But Debbie did."

"To be so little," Zina Johnson said, "she carried a whole lot."

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jill.leovy@latimes.com

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