More than 10 years after Metro Transit Police Officer Marlon Morales was shot and killed on duty inside a Northwest Washington Metro rail station, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals is weighing an appeal from the man convicted in Morales' death.
A District of Columbia Superior Court jury convicted Walter O. Johnson of first degree murder in May 2004. Johnson's attorneys have argued for a new trial, based on the recanting of testimony by a key prosecution witness and what they believe was an unconstitutional frisk.
During a special sitting on Wednesday morning, a three-judge panel heard oral arguments before a crowded courtroom. Although the court heard oral arguments in March, the judges asked for a re-argument after Senior Judge Theodore Newman replaced now-retired Judge Noel Kramer on the panel.
On Wednesday, the court dealt solely with the issue of the frisk. Several days after Morales was fatally shot in June 2001, police in Philadelphia found Morales’ service weapon in Johnson’s pant leg after an encounter with him during a traffic stop. After Johnson did not obey police orders to keep his hands on his car, a struggle ensued and police recovered the gun.
Johnson’s attorneys unsuccessfully moved to suppress the weapon before trial, arguing that the Philadelphia police officer had no legal grounds to frisk Johnson. On Wednesday, Alice Wang of the Public Defender Service told the appeals court that a frisk is “a liberty intrusion” that requires reasonable suspicion that a person is “armed and dangerous.” The Philadelphia police officer had testified that while Johnson seemed nervous, he had no reason to believe at first that Johnson might be armed.
Senior Judge Theodore Newman pushed Wang to identify the point at which a stop and a seizure becomes “unreasonable” or an “intrusion” under the law, disagreeing with her interpretation of case law.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Chasson countered that the officer had reason to suspect Johnson, when evaluating his behavior as a whole. Chasson faced questions from Judge Kathryn Oberly, who wanted to know how the law defines the beginning of a frisk. Chasson said that a frisk is limited to the physical pat down, as opposed to the officer’s orders for Johnson to put his hands on his car. Wang had argued that the frisk began as soon as the officer ordered Johnson to face and put his hands on the car.
Judge Inez Smith Reid also heard the case.
At around 9 p.m. on June 10, 2001, Morales was on duty inside the U Street Metro rail station. The station manager had stopped a man trying to leave without paying, but walked away after Morales took over. The station manager reported hearing a gunshot, and as he went to call police, he saw the fare evader run out of the station and also noticed that Morales’ gun was missing. Morales, who was shot in the head, died three days later.
On June 14, Johnson was pulled over by police in Philadelphia who had noticed the car had an expired inspection sticker. The officer ran the tags and saw that the car was in “try and locate” status, meaning it was taken by someone the owner knew and the owner wanted it back. “Try and locate” isn’t a criminal offense and doesn’t mean that a car is stolen.
The officer testified that he was suspicious of Johnson, and asked him to get out of the car, turn around and put his hands on the car for a pat down. When Johnson did not keep his hands on the car, police attempted to restrain him and found the gun in his pant leg. The gun was identified as Morales’ service weapon, which Johnson first denied having and then told police he had bought it the day before from someone else.
The gun used to shoot Morales was never recovered. At trial, prosecutors used Johnson’s possession of Morales’ gun to tie him to the murder, calling into question Johnson’s testimony that he had bought the gun from an unnamed person. Following his conviction, Johnson was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.
Morales was the second Metro Transit Police officer ever to die in the line of duty, and officers packed the courtroom on Wednesday.
“The majority of the people here remember that day well,” said Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn, who also attended Wednesday’s hearing.