There’s a young man from Atlanta who, in many ways, is no different from the number of responsible and hardworking young African American men frequenting our nation’s colleges. His name is Eric Johnson, and he is currently attending Paine College in Augusta, GA on a partial scholarship and has been promised a full scholarship if he can earn a 3.0 GPA for his freshman year.
Eric, who is close with his mom—especially given the tragic death of his father 3 years ago—has a history of strong academic performance and was an honor student in high school. I’m bringing this young man up not only to tout his accomplishments—something the media needs to spend more time doing for our young African American men—but to highlight how impressive these accomplishments are in view of the dire situation Eric found himself in not so long ago.
On the night of August 17, 2009, a horrific crime rocked the Atlanta area as two men shot 22 year-old Nikki Neely twice in the neck in a home invasion. Robbery was the motive and the men, angered by the lack of money on site, shot the mother and proceeded to senselessly beat her 10-month-old baby. Both mother and child ultimately survived the brutal attack but not without sustaining life-altering injuries.
A day later, after seeing news reports, Eric recognized the suspects as two men he’d given a ride to earlier on the day of the crime. One of the men, Antoine Wimes, he was familiar with because they’d lived in the same housing complex before. And although he didn’t know the second man, Wimes convinced Eric to give him a ride in exchange for gas money, which he needed.
Eric called 911 and told the police he picked up Wimes and another man, drove them to a gas station, bought gas and then took them further down South Fulton Parkway and dropped them off. The police from the district of the crime told him and his mother they would contact them. But once they did, the aggressive manner in which detectives spoke to Eric made his mom uncomfortable about allowing her son to say anything further without a lawyer.
Remarkably, on Thursday, August 27, 2009, Eric was arrested at his home even though the lead detective later admitted he had no evidence that Eric was present at the shooting or knew that Wimes and his partner intended to commit a crime. Eric was subsequently indicted along with Wimes and Donavon McCoy and charged with multiple felonies, including 2 counts of Aggravated Battery, Armed Robbery, Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon, and Cruelty to Children.
All of this, in spite of the fact that in the suspects’ initial statement to police they confirmed they’d been “dropped off” in the area earlier that day, and that an independent witness reported she saw Wimes and McCoy in the area near the time of the crime, but not Eric. Additionally, numerous witnesses confirmed Eric was home long before the crime.
Still, he was thrown in jail, with his family unable to post bond. But, hey, I guess they figured “what’s another Black man in jail?”
Enter Attorney Mawuli Davis from the Davis-Bozeman Law Firm who, after hearing details of Eric’s plight, committed his firm to representing Eric pro bono publico–or, for free. This lawyer joined with Reverend Derrick Rice of Sankofa United Church of Christ in Atlanta and, together–after Eric spent 100 days in jail–they raised funds for the young man’s release on bond.
Out on bond, Eric began taking college classes, and eventually and thankfully all charges were dropped and his record was expunged.
Now this is the kind of story our media seldom shares. The local and national media was all over the place when Eric was paraded around in shackles on TV and accused of a vicious crime he didn’t commit. But his innocence and success since have received little to no press.
But there’s more to the story. Eric still needs to raise $10,000 to complete the remainder of his freshman year, so Pastor Rice has set up a special fund at his church to help pay for Eric’s education.
This is the kind of effort we often say we want to see our churches and our communities involved in.
So, if you’re interested in supporting this resilient young man, you can go to the Eric Johnson Scholarship page at sankofaucc-atl.org and contribute to a story we need to hear about.
Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focused on democracy. She is an author, a Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and former Chief Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Stephanie reaches 8 to 10 million listeners each week as political commentator for the popular radio venue, The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Visit her online at www.StephanieRobinsonSpeaks.com