The murder trial of a former Air Force senior airman began today in Washington federal district court, where a prosecutor described an alleged savage gang-initiation beating that ended in the death of a 25-year-old Army sergeant.
Rico Williams is charged with second-degree murder and witness tampering for his alleged role in the beating death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson in 2005 in Germany. Prosecutors allege Williams was the leader of a group called the Gangster Disciples, whose members punched and kicked Johnson as part of a gang-related hazing in July 2005.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Duey said in her opening statement that Johnson was standing on a stone floor in a hut in the woods near Hohenecken, Germany, when he was punched in the face. Six to eight men, including Williams, stood around Johnson, the prosecutor said. Flashlights provided the only illumination.
Williams had been an airman at the Ramstein Air Base. At the time of the alleged beating, he was a bouncer at a club in the area, Duey said in court today. Duey called Williams the “governor” of the Gangster Disciples.
The men in the hut that night in the woods took turns striking Johnson for several minutes, Duey said. Williams allegedly stomped on Johnson while he was on the ground. At the end of the alleged incident, Johnson was unable to drive home. He couldn’t move his arms, Duey said. A friend poured water into Johnson's mouth.
Later that night, Johnson died.
“There is no doubt that as a result of that beating, Sgt. Johnson died,” Duey said in court today.
Williams’ lawyers, including Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer and an assistant federal public defender, Jonathan Jeffress, cast the whole event in a different light. In court today, Jeffress called Johnson’s death a tragedy and an accident.
None of the men ever intended to hurt Johnson, said Jeffress. Johnson, the attorney said, was an eager participant in the beating. He wanted to be part of the gang, which Jeffress described as a college fraternity, a brotherhood. “No one wanted this,” Jeffress told jurors in his opening statement.
Jeffress noted that Johnson didn’t suffer any broken bones or ribs. No teeth were knocked out. Johnson, according to Jeffress, was joking after the incident.
There is no physical evidence linking Williams to the beating, Jeffress said. No fingerprints. No DNA. No hair. The DNA evidence on Johnson, the defense lawyer said, excluded Williams from any involvement in the incident.
The government is expected to rely on two witnesses to put blame on Williams. Jeffress called the testimony of the witnesses unreliable. He said the jury will hear “outright lies” from the two men.
Last week, Senior Judge Paul Friedman banned prosecutors from playing for the jurors a video reenactment of Johnson’s death that was produced for the History Channel’s “Gangland” program. Friedman said that the potential prejudicial impact of the video “greatly outweighs” any probative value.