A Durham man and Bull City United worker who was exonerated of criminal charges and was freed from prison last year has been cleared of charges against him again.
Last spring, Kevin Johnson left prison 10 years into a 33-year sentence after his felony convictions were vacated by a judge on June 1. A hearing found key witnesses weren’t credible in the trial that wrongfully convicted him of shooting a Durham police officer during a 2007 burglary.
Six months later, in the first week of the new year, the Durham Police Department raided Johnson’s apartment and arrested him, accusing him of possessing drugs and weapons on Jan. 3.
Johnson, 41, maintained his innocence and was vindicated Friday when the Durham County District Attorney’s Office. dismissed the new charges.
His former attorney, Christine Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, had told The News & Observer that Johnson was targeted and his arrest was retaliatory.
“The DA’s Office dismissed all of the Jan. 3 charges against Mr. Johnson yesterday pending further investigation,” the District Attorney;s Office spokesperson, Sarah Willets, said in an email. “We have not seen evidence to suggest he was targeted.”
The District Attorney’s Office declined to comment further.
Mumma worked with Durham-based defense attorney James “Butch” Williams to get Johnson’s charges dismissed.
But “all that damage has been done,” she said. Johnson lost his job and so did his girlfriend, who lost her means of transportation after police confiscated her car keys, according to Mumma.
Days after getting out of prison, Johnson started working as a violence interrupter for Bull City United, Durham County’s gun violence intervention program, drawing on his own criminal past to influence at-risk youth.
In a Jan. 12 interview, Johnson said he was fired after his arrest and first learned that he was terminated after reading about his arrest on WRAL, which first reported the case.
“It was the most best job I ever had in my life, man,” he said. “It was me back in my neighborhoods that were criminalized … and I had a chance to turn it around.”
Johnson described spending time with youths in public housing communities like McDougald Terrace and Cornwallis Road, where gunfire sometimes broke out while he was there.
“This what you see on the TV., this is what you read in the books ... a formerly incarcerated man, retired gang member, giving back to my community, it made my day,” Johnson said.
He said he didn’t get a termination letter and was supposed to transition into becoming a full-time employee. The county confirmed that he was a temporary employee.
“(The county) didn’t even give me a chance,” Johnson said. “I put my life on the line for these people.”
The N&O reached out to Durham County for comment Friday evening but did not hear back.
In a complaint against the Durham Police Department, Mumma alleged that officers lied to her as an attorney, lied on their search warrant and obtained a search warrant illegally. She also said in the complaint that officers did not let her communicate with a friend of Johnson who was in custody, and that officers were “unnecessarily rough” with her.
Why did police arrest Johnson?
Police accused Johnson of maintaining a dwelling for selling controlled substances, felony conspiracy, manufacturing controlled substances, possessing drug paraphernalia and possession of a stolen firearm by a felon, arrest warrants showed. They arrested him at his apartment.
His friend Scott Burnette, 38, was arrested first at the scene, and charged with drug-related crimes, including possessing cocaine and fentanyl and carrying a concealed gun.
But police weren’t looking for Johnson or Burnette as suspects in a crime, arrest warrants show.
They were seeking Burnette’s 15-year-old son, who was wanted for an alleged armed robbery and was found by police at the residence. Police confirmed that he was apprehended later and charged with weapon- and drug-related crimes.
Mumma says the criminal charges, an outsized police response and ensuing drug raid appeared to be deliberate and retaliatory against Johnson and her.
In a statement to The N&O, Durham police said they do not “target any individual, business or group when conducting legitimate criminal investigations.”
Mumma and Johnson attributed the alleged illicit drugs and guns to Scott Burnette, who happened to visit his home that day.
In an interview, Scott took responsibility for the drugs and guns.
“(Police) put it all on him even when I told them it’s (mine)” Burnette said. “They chose to charge him even after I said (the guns) were mine.”
Both Burnette and Johnson posted bail to get out of jail after their arrests.
How did the arrests happen?
The day of the arrest, Johnson’s 15-year-old son had left for school. His best friend, who is Scott Burnette’s son, had spent the night there and not gone to school, according to Johnson.
While Johnson was at work, he accessed his doorbell camera through his phone and saw police officers at his apartment on Copper Ridge Drive in southern Durham later that afternoon.
He arrived at the scene and called Mumma, who showed up and stayed there for hours.
Johnson said he didn’t know that Burnette had small amounts of drugs and guns on him, or that police were searching for Burnette’s son. Burnette claims he didn’t know his son was wanted for a crime either.
Search warrants also indicate that neither Johnson nor Burnette was being sought by police that day.
Authorities arrived to arrest Burnette’s son, but he fled when police arrived, and police shifted their focus to Burnette, warrants show.
Burnette was allegedly found with a Glock firearm, marijuana, a pink powder substance, “three baggies with a white powdery-like substance in it,” and a fourth substance, all in small amounts, according to arrest documents.
Police then obtained a search warrant for the apartment, and learned that it was under both Johnson’s and Mumma’s names, since she had helped him by co-signing the lease.
That’s when Mumma says the search for Burnette’s son turned into a full-blown narcotics raid appropriate for a major threat.
“I did not think a search warrant actually would be given because there was no nexus to the crime,” she said. “I still don’t understand how the apartment was relevant.”
Police allegedly found two other guns in Johnson’s apartment, which Burnette said were his.
According to Mumma, Johnson and his previous conviction for allegedly shooting an officer were known to police.
Police declined to comment on the case or state how many officers responded to the scene.
“It was really kind of unbelievable what unfolded,” said Mumma. “I counted at least 23 officers at that apartment that afternoon, including 12 SWAT team officers who came in in full armor. The amount of resources that were expended was astonishing.”
The warrant states that Mumma and Johnson “arrived and were informed of the situation,” and that they told police there were no drugs or guns in the residence.
The search warrant indicates that police had probable cause to believe that Johnson’s apartment was relevant to their investigation after apprehending Burnette.
In the warrant affidavit, an officer stated that Burnette was a suspected gang member affiliated with the local Gangster Disciples, who is “well known” to the organized crime unit.
Inside the apartment, police said they found paraphernalia with remnants of substance that tested positive for cocaine.
Mumma disputes some of the police’s evidence that was used to charge Johnson, and said that a “grinder” and a Pyrex dish found by police were a blender and a dish used for cooking cornbread.
Attorney’s concerns about drug raid
Mumma said Johnson would not risk going back to prison.
“He’s been on such a positive track since he got out,” Mumma said. “So for (police) to accuse him of doing the very things that he is out there telling kids not to do ... this has really derailed him.”
If he had been in possession of illicit weapons and substances, Johnson said, he wouldn’t have arrived at his apartment to see why officers had shown up that day.
“Why come home? I would have been on the run,” he said. “Now I have a job, I’m living right, I’m doing work for the kids. They’re just slamming my name.”
Mumma said the situation didn’t merit the police response or raid of Johnson’s home.
It all began with a search for a juvenile, and police finding a gun and small portions of drugs in baggies on a man who didn’t live with Johnson, who was not present when police arrived, she said.
Mumma is concerned about Johnson, who had just begun getting his life together.
“Kevin admits what his life was like before he went to prison,” she said. “I mean, it’s how he is acquainted with some of these people. It’s also how he’s able to relate to kids that are on the street … he knows what can happen to these 6-year old kids, and he’s trying to help stop it.”
How Bull City United fights gun violence
Bull City United was launched in 2016 to combat gun violence from a public health perspective. The program treats violence like a contagious disease, where conflicts and shootings spread like a virus as victims retaliate.
“We’re talking with someone who is saying, ‘I want to go out and do this to someone because I’m angry; I’m mad; I want to shoot somebody,’” director Krystal Harris said last summer. “So our team, just talking with them, even if it’s just having coffee and de-escalating the situation, that’s a mediation.”
Bull City United performed 2,789 mediations last fiscal year. The 25-person staff operates on a budget of about $3 million, which comes from the city and county. Some of that money is shared with other anti-violence initiatives.
Bull City United employs violence interrupters, many of whom have criminal pasts and/or past gang involvement. They try to detect and mediate conflicts, identify people at high risk of violent behavior, and reshape attitudes around gang life.
“We can’t just have anyone do this job. It’s based on your relationships in the community (and) where you are in your transition,:Harris said, “because we do utilize those who have come from this lifestyle.”