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The State | COLUMN ONE

She took a stand to testify

Debra Johnson displayed rare courage for someone who witnessed a gang homicide. Though badly injured in the attack, she refused to remain silent.

December 06, 2006|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Debra Johnson was poor, skinny, asthmatic, addicted to crack cocaine and spent her days pushing a shopping cart. She had a record of petty, narcotic-related crimes. In short, she wasn't the type of person usually associated with heroism.

But when Johnson was asked to risk her life for a civic duty, she did what most witnesses of gang homicides in South Los Angeles don't: She testified.

She did so even though the killers had done their best to silence her. They fired a bullet into her chest at close range, then another into her face, shattering her upper jaw and palate. Six surgeries later, she still had difficulty breathing and speaking, and needed a prosthetic to cover a hole in the roof of her mouth.

Yet despite pain and fear, she twice took the stand to ensure that the attackers were jailed.

Witnesses' reluctance to cooperate with authorities, or "snitch," is often depicted as the product of a moral malaise.

Critics have focused on a wave of anti-snitching songs, T-shirts and DVDs. "Symptoms of a depressing cultural illness," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called the phenomenon.

But Johnson's story shows what is at stake for many witnesses to gang violence -- how deeply rooted their fear, how few their rewards and how powerless their status. "I don't think we have ever had a gang case where the specter of fear didn't raise its head for at least one witness," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Halim Dhanidina, whose unit focuses on gang cases. "It's a colossal problem."

Johnson's resolve under such circumstances was especially striking, according to detectives and prosecutors. Det. Mark Hahn of the LAPD's Southeast Division described the 5-foot-5, 115-pound Johnson as a spirited witness who cooperated with humor and enthusiasm.

Johnson was one of eight children of a Watts couple. She was an orphan by 13, her father dying of natural causes and her mother killed in a house fire.

Johnson was taken in by her aunt, Dorothy McCann. She was slight, energetic and "kinda sassy-like," McCann said -- a description that held throughout her life, other relatives said.

Family members disagreed about whether she graduated from high school, though they said she attended several before moving in with a much older man. She never held a job. She did drugs. She was on parole. She lived with companions or siblings, spending time in the Antelope Valley and Watts. For periods, she disappeared.

BUT Johnson was loved. Family members talked of her sense of drama and her nicknames for everyone she knew -- her aunt was "sweetie" and a small cousin was "ladybug." She loved to bat her eyelashes and play the coquette, cousin Aleathia Scott said.

On April 6, 2004, Johnson was with a close friend, Annette Anderson, in an apartment in the Nickerson Gardens public housing project in Watts.

Also staying in the apartment was George Brooks, 29. About 3:30 a.m., two men arrived, seeking Brooks in a dispute over drug proceeds. They came in shooting.

Johnson was asleep in the living room. In court, she described lying on the floor, watching as the kitchen lighted up with multiple shots, "just like a Molotov cocktail," she said, according to transcripts. Brooks was in the tiny dining room. He died in a barrage of close-range gunfire so massive that his face collapsed -- "holes within holes," Hahn said.

The assailants, who police say were armed with a .357 magnum Desert Eagle and a 9 millimeter pistol, then concentrated on eliminating witnesses.

Anderson was shot through the head, then shot again through the chest for good measure as she lay on her back, Hahn's partner, Det. Roger Allen, said.

Another of Anderson's guests was taking cover under the kitchen table. Parts of her jaw and tongue were shot off, and her body was riddled with bullets. Johnson was still on the living room floor when a gunman came for her. She looked up into the black barrel of a gun, and a face she recognized beyond it, she testified.

Johnson threw up an arm to protect herself. The first bullet passed through the upraised arm then "in and out of my mouth," she said. "I was sitting up, spitting out my teeth and then my gums.... I said, 'Somebody please help me.' " Another bullet slammed through her chest.

She was on the floor. She played dead. She watched as an attacker crept out of the house. Then she heard shouts and sirens.

When the paramedics arrived, they found a crime scene bathed in blood. Brooks and Anderson were dead. The guest with the shattered jaw was still alive and trying to crawl across the kitchen floor. Johnson remained in the living room, conscious and struggling to breathe.

A few hours later, Johnson was strapped to a bed in an intensive care unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. When her brother Michael came to identify her, he didn't recognize her at first. "It was so bad -- her tongue sticking out, her face all blowed up.... I've never seen anything like that," he said.

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