Tale of Two Students With a Twist

Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 10, 2009

Joshua Brandon Norris is expected to graduate soon and become a Morehouse Man, with all its prestige. At 22, he’s had a good run during his time at Morehouse College. He drove a Hummer, co-owned a fashion store at Perimeter Mall and owns a stylish $450,000 townhouse.

He also shot another student.

Across the country, Frank Rashad Johnson, the victim, attends Sacramento City College and lives with his mother, trying to save money. He, too, wanted to be a Morehouse Man.

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But all that fell apart when he was shot three times outside a school-related Halloween party near Atlantic Station in 2007. Police reports say Norris was kicked out of a nightclub, had words with Johnson after bumping into him outside, then shot the fellow Morehouse student during a struggle in the street.

Completing a Morehouse degree is vital to Norris. Fulton County Judge Marvin Arrington ordered him to do so after he pleaded no contest to a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The deal calls for six years of probation and comes with first-offender status–meaning Norris’ record will be wiped clean if he stays out of trouble.

“You’re getting the break of your life,” Arrington said during the Jan. 27 hearing.

The arrangement constitutes a bizarre twist of fate for Johnson.

“I sit at home, still recovering from my wound, painfully aware my Morehouse dreams have become a nightmare,” Johnson wrote to Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard after hearing about the deal. “My victimizer (and almost murderer) received a closeted, secretive, back-door slap on the wrist and is now back at Morehouse, moving forward with his educational aspirations without having paid any price for his crime.”

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The case is an example of how a relatively new prosecutor got caught up in Arrington’s crusade to save young black men. Of an overworked department dealing with a hard-charging defense attorney. Of a victim not getting his just due in court. And, says Johnson’s family, of a young man once again escaping serious criminal charges.

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The deal came after Thompson, a former Fulton police lieutenant who became an attorney in 2005, heard Arrington’s up-by-your bootstraps message in court weeks earlier, according to a transcript of the hearing. Last year, Arrington removed whites from his courtroom to lecture black defendants on proper behavior.

“We’ve got this young man who’s coming back to Morehouse now, he’s close to graduation,” Thompson told Arrington. “Sending him to state prison for two years, I don’t think that would be in the state’s best interest. Hopefully, this will be the lesson he needs.”

In the hearing, Arrington opined Norris “needs to have a curfew. He needs to be in a dorm where you can get some study time. Take organic chemistry and physics. Make him some A’s.”

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Johnson complains his voice remained silent during the hearing. Actually, not only was his voice absent, but a version opposite of what police reports said happened that night was presented. In the hearing, Thompson said Johnson was kicked out of the nightclub before a fight started outside. And the defense attorney picked up from there, telling the judge Johnson and his friends surrounded his client’s Hummer and threatened him.

But several police reports in the court file say it was Norris who was kicked out of the party, one that Johnson never entered. And the reports say Norris returned to his vehicle after arguing with Johnson, then drove back, slammed on his brakes and got out with a gun.

Johnson said prosecutors repeatedly told him they were up against a “prestigious” attorney. “I think they were intimidated by him,” he said. “It infuriates me I was never able to give anyone my sense of outrage or my story.”

Norris’ lawyer, Brian Steel, seen as one of Atlanta’s best defense attorneys, said he investigated the case, spoke with witnesses who supported his client’s story and was ready to go to trial. “I was not impressed with the facts from the state side,” he said. “The issue here is what is justice and what is truth.”

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Eight months passed, and then last summer, Fulton prosecutors moved to revoke Norris’ bond after learning he was accused of smashing a glass in his ex-girlfriend’s face at a Nashville bar. She received severe cuts in her forehead requiring eight inches of stitches, police reports said.

The victim’s aunt, Kelly Carr, told police “when she went to the ER her niece told her Brandon had done this to me.” The aunt also said, “the victim is scared of the suspect because he is out on bond for attempted homicide” and Norris’ stepfather, Daniel Turner, a Nashville cop, “pulled her from the room and said his son, wanted to see/speak with [the victim].”

An officer reported this to internal affairs, which investigated and cleared Turner. The victim was “completely uncooperative,” Nashville police reported.

During Norris’ bond revocation hearing in Fulton last August, the woman testified she was cut when a fight broke out in the Nashville bar while she walked toward Norris’ table. He was cut in the hand in the same fight, according to testimony. Prosecutors later dropped the matter.

In another case in Fulton court files, Clark Atlanta University students Britteny Turman and Grace Dixon say Norris pulled a gun on them during a traffic dispute near Morehouse in November 2005. The women, in recent interviews, said Norris screamed profanities and followed them in their car for several blocks.

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The two say they heard no follow-up from Fulton solicitors. Morehouse officials declined to answer questions about Norris.

Asked about Norris’ plea deal in the shooting, Arrington said he has “close to 100 cases a week” and doesn’t remember it. But he recalled the Nashville assault case when Norris came before him during the plea hearing.

“This is the young man who was whipping a young lady?” the judge asked.

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Johnson last month got a letter from Morehouse President Robert M. Franklin after the Johnson family repeatedly contacted the college after the plea deal.

Franklin suggested Johnson return. “Your matriculation would be a wonderful triumph over adversity,” he wrote.

Johnson aspired to becoming a Morehouse Man, as have three generations of relatives. But he has soured on that.

“Honestly, I don’t want to do that; I don’t feel safe there,” he said. “The situation is all backward to me.”

[Editor’s Note: Other stories about Judge Marvin Arrington are listed here.]

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