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State v Johnson with Malcolm Gladwell | E7/S2: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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New Trial Is Denied For Rapist, Augusta Chronicle, October 10, 1959
State Court Hears Case for Rapist, Augusta Chronicle, September 14, 1959

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Transcripts for the entire Season 1 and Season 2 podcasts of Revisionist History are available here.

State v Johnson with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 7| Season 2| Revisionist History
Length: 31 min | Released: 7/26/2017

Malcolm Gladwell: Before we begin, a warning. This episode contains material that may be upsetting to some listeners.

The facts of the case in State V. Johnson as described by the alleged victim are as follows. She was 32 years old. She was a nurse’s aide at Talmadge Memorial Hospital. She says she left work alone on the evening of January 26, at 11:00 PM. While she was getting in her car, the accused, Nathaniel Johnson, seized her and threatened to kill her if she did not get into his car. She got away, screamed for help, he caught her, she told him to take her money and leave her alone but he replied, “I don’t want money, I want you.”

The victim’s description of what happened that night is very graphic. It goes on for several pages. I’m giving you an abridged version, but it’s still very disturbing so please keep that in mind. As you’ll see, understanding exactly what the defendant was accused of in this instance is crucial.

She got away and ran screaming onto the lawn of the hospital when he once again caught her and dragged her to his car. He knocked her down, repeatedly slapped her in the face and told her to shut up or he would kill her. Johnson placed his knee on her chest pinning her down, put his hand on her throat into the trachea and kept bearing down on it telling her to quit screaming. He closed her nostrils with his other hand and since she could not get air, she lost consciousness. When she came to, she realized that she was in the back of a moving automobile. He finally stopped his car on a dirt road, pushed her out onto the ground and raped her. He took a shot of whiskey and asked her if she drank. She replied that she did not, that she was a Sunday school teacher. He raped her a second time. They drove back into town, he took her wallet, wrote down her name, address, telephone number and her husband’s name on a piece of paper and put it in his pocket. Pictures taken of the victim immediately after the assault and placed in evidence without objection, I’m quoting now, “Show several severe scratches and bruises on her face, head, and throat. And testimony offered by the state shows that, her clothing was badly torn and bloody.” End of quote.

The alleged perpetrator, Nathaniel Johnson, was arrested. The victim picked him out of a lineup. He confessed. He was tried. He was convicted.

Here’s my question, how do you feel about the case of State V. Johnson? We have a victim, we have physical evidence, we have a positive identification, we have a confession. Do you know all you need to know?

My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You’re listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood.

In the course of this season, I have been preoccupied with the subject of power, the particular power of friendship, the way shifts in power change the way we remember the past. And with this episode and the next one, I want to return to that subject one more time and focus on our reluctance to acknowledge the role of power, the way we pretend that we can make sense of the world without first clarifying who has the power and who does not.

Let me give you an example of what I mean about the complicating effects the power. It’s from well into the trial of Nathaniel Johnson. One after another, witnesses against Johnson have presented devastating evidence. One of the arresting officers is testifying about what Nathaniel Johnson said in his confession. It’s a small moment and slips out seemingly without anyone remarking on it. This is what the officer says, “Nathaniel Johnson told us that after he had intercourse with this lady there, that she asked him for a cigarette. He said he’d give her a cigarette and said he took one and smoked it himself and said they threw the butts down there. We found three butts there at this place, at the scene.” “We found three bats there”? Does that fact strike you as strange? Is it common place for two people to share a cigarette after a brutal rape?

And how about this, it also slips out in the trial without comment. The police chief, a man named George Mutimer, tells the court about Nathaniel Johnson’s confession. Johnson has talked about driving with the victim in his car. They fought, she resisted, he was apparently choking her and then you Mutimer testifies, and I’m quoting, “He said at that time that he drove off, went to a little side road off the new Savannah Road and parked and he claims that she said it was too close to the road. He drove on maybe half a city block further and parked.” Why is the victim complaining to her rapist that he’s parked too close to the road?

Then, there’s the prosecution’s star witness, a Mrs. Bailey. She testifies that three years earlier, Nathaniel Johnson had come up to her while she was sitting in a parked car and he tried to assault her. I’m reading now from the transcript, the prosecutor asks, “Mrs. Bailey, you testified that this man grabbed you around the throat and you screamed and somebody came out at the door I believe.” Mrs. Bailey, “Yes, Sir.” Prosecutor, “Did you see where he went?” Mrs. Bailey, “I saw him run down the road.” Prosecutor, “How fast was he going?” Bailey, “Mighty fast.” Nathaniel Johnson happens to be an army veteran who lost part of his foot in combat, broke both legs, both arms, his shoulder, broke his collar bone, six bullets in his hip, he spent two years in a rehab hospital recovering. I don’t see him running “mighty fast” anywhere.

At the very end of the trial, Nathaniel Johnson finally speaks. He’s not very coherent. He knows he’s going to get convicted. He’s confessed. He starts out by saying that he had a statement he wanted to make, but he’s decided against giving it. Again from the court transcript, this is Nathaniel Johnson, “I don’t know, I just don’t feel that it was, it would be, it would be, well, it would be, you know, for me to say it, but to tell the truth about it, well.” Makes you wonder. Trial is over, he’s already confessed. Why is he hemming and hawing? He goes on, “I am here to say today that I am not guilty of rape. I won’t give this statement which would run the facts down on what really happened and everything to keep from bringing a disturbment in a century of Colored and White at this time. I don’t want to be responsible for it.”

Nathaniel Johnson wanted to avoid bringing a “disturbment between Colored and White.” I asked you at the beginning how sure you were about the guilty verdict against Nathaniel Johnson. We had a victim, we had physical evidence, we had a positive identification, we had a confession. That sounds like enough. But that little reference to colored and white is a reminder that I left out almost all of the details having to do with power.

Where did the rape allegedly take place? Well, let me tell you, in Augusta, Georgia, the South. Okay. When did it allegedly take place? 1959, a very different era in a place like Augusta, Georgia. And the most crucial fact, Colored and White. The accuser was White, her alleged assailant, Nathaniel Johnson, was Black. After his arrest, Johnson is taken to the interrogation room at the police station with the arresting officer, Holly Thibault. Thibault’s not getting anywhere so he calls in Chief Mutimer. At the trial, Thibault says, “They do that quite frequently because whenever they call in Mutimer, most of the people talk.” Then, Thibault goes on, “Chief Mutimer stayed in the interrogation room with him for some time and he came out and shook his head and said, ‘Holly, he told me about it.’ And I went back in there in the interrogation room and he was crying, Nathaniel was crying.”

The chief of police, who was really good at making people talk, disappears alone into the interrogation room with Johnson for a few hours, no lawyers in sight, and when he emerges, he has a confession.

Let me read to you again from Nathaniel Johnson’s closing statement, only this time, keep in mind who he is, where he is and when it is. Johnson says, “I am not guilty of rape and the statement I have is a true statement but the shape of the courtroom to the community and citizens of this town, Colored and White, I think I would bring a big confusion between them. And I know rape is a serious charge and I know it is more serious by a Colored man being accused of rape by a White woman and so, I want to leave it in ya’lls hands and trust you all to do what the Lord and justice of it and I am not guilty of rape in my heart. That is the truth from God.”

If you don’t know it’s Georgia, it’s 1959 and that Nathaniel Johnson is Black and his victim is White, what do you know? Nothing.

In Georgia, there’s a lineage of civil rights lawyers, a tradition. It begins with a man named AT Walden, born in 1885 to two former slaves in Fort Valley, Georgia.

Vernon Jordan: When I was a kid and Austin Thomas Walden, who finished University of Michigan in 1912, would come to my church for the St. Cecilia Vesper Hour and I sang in the St. Cecilia choir and I would hear him speak about segregation and he would say, “I’ll be glad when you are dead, you rascal, you” So, I grew up wanting to be a lawyer like Austin T. Walden.

MG: Vernon Jordan, one of the legends of the civil rights movement. He’s had an extraordinary career. He ran the Urban League for years; he was a close confidant of President Clinton, a deal maker on Wall Street. He’s 81 years old; he must be 6 foot 4, impeccable southern manners, a long impassive face. When he talks to you, he leans down from his great height and lowers his voice.

VJ: So in 1965, as a very young lawyer, I was asked to give the Emancipation Proclamation Day speech.

MG: I went to see Jordan in his office, in Rockefeller Center. I wore a suit; I was told I had to. Vernon likes people to dress properly. He began by describing his induction into the civil rights fraternity, the day the Georgia NAACP asked him to speak.

VJ: Walden was on this pulpit with braces on his legs, he could hardly move. And went about, when I finished, Walden struggled up to me and said, “You hit a home run, son, you hit a home run. That was the laying on of hands, that was the blessing.”

MG: In the lineage of civil rights lawyers, AT Walden came first. Next in line was a man named Donald L. Hollowell, another legend. I will have much, much more to say about Hollowell in the next episode. Vernon Jordan was inspired by Walden and straight out of law school, he went to work for Hollowell. He was a disciple of two of the greats and I went to see Jordan to learn what being a disciple in Georgia in those years meant. What did you learn? What were you up against?

There were very few Black lawyers in the south in those years. If you were Black and in trouble, you rarely had one of your own to represent you. Justice is supposed to be blind, which is another way of saying that we’re supposed to close our eyes when we enter a court room and not notice a fact like race. In 1959, Donald Hollowell and Vernon Jordan had their eyes wide open. They watched what was happening to Nathaniel Johnson in Augusta with growing alarm.

VJ: And he was given a White, court appointed lawyer who convinced him, given the circumstances of a Black man being accused by a White woman of rape, said to him, “The best way to stay out of the electric chair is to plead guilty and have her corroborate your guilty plea and you’ll get life,” and he went for it. He did not get life; he got the electric chair.

MG: To put that in perspective, there was a case in Atlanta right around the same time as Johnson’s only that involved a White man convicted of raping his Black maid. He broke down the bathroom door and attacked her. He got two to five years. White on Black rape was a two to five-year crime in the state of Georgia. Johnson faced the death penalty. So when Johnson says in his final statement, “I know rape is a serious charge and I know it is more serious by a Colored man being accused of rape by a White woman,” that’s what he’s talking about. There’s one set of rules for White people and another for Black people. And the standards for legal representation, those are different too.

VJ: The White, court appointed lawyer, the night before he was to be executed, got drunk in an Augusta bar, borrowed paper from the bartender, wrote out a writ of habeas corpus, and went to the judge to argue that Nathaniel’s Johnson rights, under the Fifth Amendment, had been violated.

MG: As it turns out, that’s the wrong amendment. Under those circumstances, the lawyer should have raised the Fourteenth Amendment, but the lawyer’s writing an appeal while he’s drunk and it’s not at all clear that he cares that much since, if you read the trial transcript, Johnson’s lawyer barely ever said anything.

VJ: And it went up to the Supreme Court on certiorari, which was denied. And then Mr. Hollowell, my boss, was hired and I went with him to see Nathaniel Johnson in the Reedsville State Prison. He was a very handsome, cool prisoner.

MG: Hollowell and Jordan were brought in by the NAACP to try and win a stay of execution, one last Hail Mary.

MG: How old was he?

VJ: Must’ve been 30, 32, something like that.

MG: Jordan and Hollowell sit down with Johnson and start to piece together Johnson’s version of what happened that night. It’s a very different story.

VJ: He was having a relationship with this woman, this White woman, and the relationship was put together by a Black assistant nurse at the hospital in Augusta. And he would go and pick her up and they would go out on the roads and do their business.

MG: In the version of events that got Johnson convicted, the victim had never seen him before, but Nathaniel Johnson told Jordan and Hollowell they’d been spotted together.

VJ: One night, they were out on the road and the car got stuck in the mud and a group of White hunters were crossing the road and she gets out and says, “I’m taking my yard man home and we got stuck in the mud,” and these White hunters push the car out of the mud.

MG: If you read the official account of the case, it says that the victim reported her alleged assault to the police in the early hours of the morning on January 27, after she gets home. Then it goes on to say, crucially, that the police arrest Johnson that same night.

Think about that. Augusta, at the time, is a city of 70,000 people, roughly half Black. So we are asked to believe that in the course of a couple of hours, without benefit of daylight, the police were able to correctly locate, in a community of 35,000 African Americans, a suspect and that they did this with no more than the description of his automobile from a badly traumatized rape victim because she’d never met him before.

VJ: And so, after a visit on the dark road, she said to him that she was pregnant and a disagreement ensued.

MG: They had a fight, he beat her up. That’s how she ended up with all those injuries. Johnson had physical power over her, but she had far greater power over him. In that time and place, a White woman had the power of life and death over a Black man.

VJ: She went home and told her husband that she had been raped and they went to Nathaniel Johnson’s house in the middle of the night, illegal arrest, illegal search and seizure, illegal detention, all of that.

MG: When you saw him, did he think that he had a chance?

VJ: He was just scared to death. He was just scared to death and we were his only hope.

MG: “We were his only hope.” And so, Hollowell and Jordan set out to save Nathaniel Johnson’s life any way they can. Stay the execution, fight for a new trial. Jordan was fresh out of law school, full of righteous anger and idealism.

VJ: And I remember going into his cell with him and Mr. Hollowell, and Hollowell said, “We’re going to see the local judge here and we will drive to Atlanta and we will go to see the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, to the Governor, and the Board of Pardons and Parole.”

MG: It was the beginning of the apprenticeship of Vernon Jordan.

VJ: And that’s when Mr. Hollowell put me on the case and we went to Brunswick, Georgia, which I’ll never forget. The federal district judge there began the case by asking, “When is the execution schedule?” And they said, “Tomorrow morning, Your Honor.” So he listened to the state attorneys, he listened to Mr. Hollowell, and I remember him saying, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” And we drove from Brunswick after he refused to stay the execution. From Brunswick, Georgia to Atlanta, that’s when it was all two highways. I did the driving and we ended up in the chambers of the Chief Justice. And he walks in, and so he sees me and he said, “Son, where did you play basketball?” And I said, “Mister Chief Justice, we’re not here to talk about where I played basketball. We’re here about the life of Nathaniel Johnson.” He said, “Ah, that Colored boy who went out there on the road and raped that woman. I don’t want to hear about that.” We then go from his chambers to the next building, where the Attorney General was. The secretary picks up the phone and says to the Attorney General, “Mr. Attorney General, there are two boys out here to see you.” The Attorney General of Georgia, Henry Neill, did not invite us into his office. He came out and stood behind the secretary’s desk and said that the governor was out of town and the governor would not stay the execution and we left and went to the Board of Pardon and Paroles. And as we walked in the door, he said, “Hollowell, you’re too late. Nathaniel Johnson is on his way to the electric chair.”

MG: There was nothing more for them to do.

VJ: And I said, “Mr. Hollowell, I would like to have the rest of the day off.” He said, “Fine.” And I had on a light beige Haspell suit that I had gotten for graduation and I walked down to Hunter Street home. It was 85, 90 degrees in Atlanta and I’m walking alone thinking what I had just witnessed, thinking about the first time I saw him and thinking about seeing him the night before he died. And I just walked home crying. It’s the only time in my 81 years that I can remember losing total control and just urinated all over myself, on my brand new beige suit. I remember that as vivid as I see you right now.

MG: When Vernon Jordan told me the story of Nathaniel Johnson, the first thing I thought about was Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The book every American child reads in middle school.

Now, Madam, suppose you tell us just what happened.

It tells the same basic story, right?

I was sitting on the porch and he come along.

The Jim Crow south, a Black man named Tom Robinson accused of rape by a White woman, Mayella Ewell.

And I turn around and before I know it, he’s on me.

MG: But Tom Robinson’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, is White, which, of course, changes everything. Finch addresses an all-male, all-White jury, men just like him. So what does he do? He puts Robinson on the stand and has him talk about all the ways in which Mayella Ewell tried to trap him.

Tom, were you acquainted with Mayella Violet Ewell?

I had to pass her place going to and from the field every day.

MG: Robinson says he just happened to be walking by Mayella’s house. She asks him to come in and help her dismantle a piece of furniture. Then she hugs him around the waist.

She scared me so bad I hopped down to turn and turned tail. I was only […]

MG: Under Atticus Finch’s careful direction, Robinson then says one more thing. And by the way, if you watched the famous Gregory Peck movie version of To kill A Mockingbird, the one you’ve been hearing, you won’t find these lines.

Here’s how it is originally written. “She reached up and kissed me on the side of the face. She said she’d never kissed a grown man before and she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her Papa do to her don’t count. She says, “Kiss me back, nigger.” I say, “Miss Mayellah, let me out of here.” And I tried to run but she got her back to the door and I had to push her. I don’t wanna harm her, Mr. Finch, and I say, “Let me pass.” But just when I say it, Mr. Ewell, yonder, hollered through a window. What did he say? Tom Robinson shut his eyes tight. He says, “You god damn whore. I’ll kill you.””

In his summation to the Court, Atticus Finch says, “She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it.” He’s saying, “She wanted it.” But not only that, when he has Tom Robinson drop that little bit about, “She says that what her Papa do to her don’t count,” he’s accusing her of incest. Finch is offering his fellow White men on the jury a choice. He says, “Look, you can act as White people and enforce your power against Black people or you can act as men and enforce the power of your gender against women.” Atticus Finch gets an awful lot love, but when I read that book, all I could think was he’s just telling them, “Don’t be racist, be sexist.”

That might be a good argument in the moment, but it’s not especially noble.

When Vernon Jordan is walking through the streets of Atlanta with that humiliating stain spreading down his beige suit, he knows he doesn’t have the same freedom that an Atticus Finch has. Finch is free to say whatever he wants to the jury; that’s the privilege of his race and position, but Jordan is powerless. That’s also when Nathaniel Johnson didn’t even bother to defend himself in court. He said, “I know the truth, but what’s the point?” Remember what Johnson said, “I would say that the reason I won’t give this statement, which would run the facts down on what really happened and everything, to keep from bringing a disturbment in a century of Colored and White at this time. I don’t want to be responsible for it.”

MG: When you went on those rounds, was no one interested in hearing the facts of the case?

VJ: No. That includes a federal district judge; that includes a local judge in Reedsville, the Chief Justice, the Attorney General, and the Board of Pardon and Paroles. It was over. It was done.

MG: Do you think they honestly believed it was a case of rape or do you think that they…?

VJ: It didn’t matter; it was a White woman and a Black man, a Black man doing something that was out of the question in the south. And the court appointed lawyer had to know that it was a consensual relationship.

MG: Yeah. So it’s just a kind of… They weren’t even going to the trouble of thinking it through?

VJ: Nobody was interested in justice.

MG: Everyone went on with their lives, the judges, the Attorney General, the lawyers. It takes time to unravel the truth in situations where one side has all the power; nobody had the time. The trial transcript of the Johnson case in the Georgia archives looks like it’s never been touched. I don’t even know where he’s buried. I wouldn’t know how to look for the grave of someone nobody remembers, executed half a century ago. All that’s left are one man’s memories.

MG: Did you ever meet the accuser?

VJ: I never did. The word is that after he died, that the White lady went around to Black churches and asked forgiveness.