After the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced a state trooper would not face charges for the killing of a Black man, his family and supporters said they were tired of the legal system failing communities of color.
“The system failed me, it failed my son and it fails us Black people,” Erma Johnson, the mother of Dion Johnson, said.
“We are dying out here, and it doesn’t have to be like this.”
Jocquese Blackwell, the lawyer for the Johnson family, called MCAO’s investigation a “one-sided story.” He said with so many questions left unanswered, the outcome of the case should be determined by a jury in court.
Johnson, 28, was shot and killed by an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper, George Cervantes, on Memorial Day.
Johnson’s death was on the same day George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Their deaths led to weeks of protests in the Phoenix area demanding equal treatment for people of color.
County Attorney Allister Adel said the office reviewed police reports, statements from witnesses and Cervantes, and was discussed among a committee, which gives advice on cases concerning police shootings.
She said during the time of the shooting, Cervantes was fearing for his life.
“Instead the evidence, in this case, shows the trooper was attempting to effect the arrest of an impaired driver,” Adel stated.
Dion’s family held a news conference after Adel announced her decision.
The gathering was outside the County Attorney’s Office near Third Avenue and Madison Street. Nearby, officers watched from a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office SUV and a Phoenix police camera truck.
‘I’m still going to fight for justice’
Erma Johnson said she hasn’t had the time to fully grieve or seek counseling for her son’s death.
“I knew they weren’t going to charge him for my son’s murder,” she said.
His mother said the county attorney and law enforcement are calling her son the aggressor; she believes Cervantes was the aggressor.
The family still wants to know the full story about what happened, she said. If Cervantes had followed protocol, her son would still be alive, she said.
Federal authorities said in June they were looking into his death, but the family hasn’t heard anything about the investigation.
Cervantes was not wearing a body-worn camera during the shooting. DPS is the largest law enforcement agency in the state to not have bodycams. The family has called on lawmakers to change that.
The Arizona Department of Transportation has traffic cameras that captured the shooting. AZ Family was able to record the footage from the live feed. The footage didn’t show the shooting and has no audio but does show the minutes afterward.
Blackwell said ADOT claims it doesn’t have the capability to record its own cameras.
Erma Johnson said Dion was looking forward to accomplishing all of the goals he had for himself, including getting more into music. She told The Republic in June that her son had loved music since he was 2.
His death was hard for his siblings, she said. Dion, a “momma’s boy,” was the second-youngest of five. He was the father of a 14-year-old daughter.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” she said. “I’m still going to fight for justice for my son.”
The family is planning to file a notice of claim, Blackwell said.
Cervantes has a history of receiving reprimands, including for leaving a threatening note on a former romantic partner’s car and for using a stun gun to discipline his puppy, according to a 2012 internal affairs report.
‘He was one of our Black babies’
Several community groups asked members to show their support for Johnson’s family, including Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, Mass Liberation AZ, Black Phoenix Organizing Collective, Phoenix Local Organizing Committee, Black Mothers Forum, The Unity Collective and Poder in Action.
Janelle Wood of the Black Mothers Forum said she spoke to Dion’s mother after MCAO made its decision.
“Dion Johnson was our Black son,” Wood said. “He was one of our Black babies.”
She said it was unfortunate that the county attorney’s decision didn’t surprise her.
“I recognize the injustices that continue to reign supreme when it comes to our Black sons and daughters being anything other than criminalized, demonized and harassed,” Wood said.
She said the legal system exaggerates behavior by people of color to justify “reckless and irresponsible behavior” like the actions of Cervantes.
Blackwell said the system isn’t working for Black people.
“When you look like me, you get beat up or killed,” he said.
Police shootings across the country don’t only impact adults, but also youth in communities of color. It is common for parents to have “the talk” with their children.
Parents warn their children about how others may perceive them, especially law enforcement. They teach the children what to do if they are stopped by an officer in order to hopefully come home safe.
MORE: Phoenix area crowds protest deaths of George Floyd, Dion Johnson and others
Erma Johnson told The Republic she wants youths to remember if they get approached by law enforcement, to follow their commands and be respectful. She said they should call their families immediately.
“Call somebody that can help or be there to assist in some kind of way,” she said. “I know if my son could’ve had me on the line, I would have flown out there. Under any circumstances, I would have been there.”
‘We will not be sidetracked by your artificial sympathies’
Members of the community called out Adel for statements she made during her announcement.
Black Phoenix Organizing Collective called the county attorney’s statements on transparency an attempt to “gaslight” communities of color.
“Understandably, this case is of great significance and this public announcement demonstrates my commitment to transparency in decision-making,” Adel said at her news conference.
LaShae Brown, who spoke for the Black Phoenix Organizing Collective, said. “We will not be sidetracked by your artificial sympathies.”
Adel said charging someone can be a “life-altering event.”
Phyllis Tyson of Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix said it is problematic if killing a person is not a “life-altering event.”
“When will justice be served?” she asked.
Multiple groups encouraged the community to recognize the power of going to the polls to vote. Some speakers pointed to Adel having the support of police unions.
Adel, a Republican, is running for county attorney in November. She was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in October to succeed Bill Montgomery, who was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court.
Julie Gunnigle, a Democrat, is running against Adel. She called the county attorney’s decision political.
“You, your son and your family deserve so much better,” she told Johnson’s mother.
Have thoughts about Arizona’s legal system? Reach criminal justice reporter Lauren Castle at Lauren.Castle@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @Lauren_Castle.