Frances Cress Welsing and Torture

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“Torture — something that causes mental or physical suffering : a very painful or unpleasant experience. . .” (Merriam Webster)

Back in the summer, 1978, a 15 year old African-American teen, Terrance Johnson and his brother were pulled over by the Prince George’s County Police. Prince George’s County is a suburb of Washington D.C. and back then, their police force was considered ruthless and racist. Most of us who grew up in and around Washington D.C. had multiple encounters with the police force and it was not pleasant or respectful.

Johnson was arrested and taken to the Hyattsville station, and was, as he maintained back then and afterwards, physically brutalized by the P.G. County police. Some have described it as torture. The unfortunate episode ended badly. Johnson eventually got control of an officer’s handgun and killed two police officers (Albert Claggett IV and James Brian Swart) inside the station. It was an event that still shapes attitudes towards police officers in the Washington D.C. area.

Johnson was tried for the murders of the officers. His legal team, included, the late R. Kenneth Mundy, who eventually would represent Mayor Marion Barry, of Washington D.C. in his Vista Hotel drug trial in the 90’s. The trial for Johnson was a racial powder keg and placed a spotlight on police brutality.

Johnson did not beat the charges entirely for the murder of the police officers but he did avoid conviction for the worst charges and received a sentence that would allow a young man (he was 16 when the trial was held) to, at least, try to start over (he was eventually released). Yet, one reason why he did avoid the most serious charges and sentence is because of the now late, Washington D.C. Psychiatrist, Frances Cress Welsing.

Dr. Welsing was used as a mental health expert in the trial for Johnson for the shootings. Considering Johnson was only convicted for one of the murders (he was convicted of a gun charge and involuntary manslaughter for the death of Claggett), her testimony was clearly a critical piece of his defense. There was never any argument over whether Johnson committed the crimes. The only argument was whether he was justified because he was being tortured.

Dr. Welsing’s testimony was so important to the case that the State Attorney, Arthur Marshall, not only attacked Dr. Welsing during cross examination but also attacked her in his closing. Obviously, it didn’t work. Welsing’s testimony also (arguably) verified for the jury what Johnson had been saying since the night of the killings: he was being basically tortured.

“Terrence killed. . . under gross stress to his nervous system,” she testifed. She added that “I would compare what happened to him to that of someone in combat who believes that they are going to be killed.” Welsing testified for 41/2 hours that day back in 1979.

Her testimony was also not bashful in detail. She emphasized that Johnson, a 15 year old, had been kicked in the groin, and his “genitals” had been “attacked.” Under such circumstances, “you have to defend yourself,” she testified, “black people know about that.”

Dr. Welsing’s testimony and the work of the legal team saved Johnson from a life sentence. While he served 16 years in prison, he was eventually released. Unfortunately, Johnson killed himself in 1997 during a botched bank robbery. He was a law student at the time but was finding it difficult to adjust and see his future bright. It was rumored that the pressure of trying to overcome the path set before him simply led him to give up. Police officials and Maryland correctional officials fought for years to keep him in prison. A Catholic priest called for his execution even though he was being tortured and never should have been arrested.

It makes one wonder: Dr. Welsing suggested during her trial testimony that Johnson was still under stress and should be released to psychiatric care as a cure for his psychiatric problems brought on by the treatment in the station. It did not happen. Johnson went to adult prison and had to learn to survive in a very dangerous environment everyday. Was he forever hopelessly traumatized the moment he was taken into custody by the police that night back in 1978? Was he ever able to put that night of torture behind him?

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