WASHINGTON – Shortly before 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 17, Adrian Duane Johnson walked into a CVS pharmacy in D.C. Police said he grabbed four Oral B Pro electric toothbrushes, retailing for $217.98 total, and refused to pay.
The 29-year-old was arrested and detained for three days, then released to await court hearings and possibly a trial. He was homeless and had a string of convictions for shoplifting, typically spending no more than 10 to 15 days in jail at a time.
Johnson has now been charged with killing Tricia Lynn McCauley, a 46-year-old yoga instructor and popular stage actress who disappeared in the Washington, D.C., on her way to Christmas dinner Dec. 25.
Her friends have complained that the justice system failed by shielding Johnson from serious penalties in a lifetime of crime.
He was free on Christmas despite having been arrested six times on theft-related charges in the District and Maryland since May. He was convicted in two cases and awaiting trial in the others.
Court records show he repeatedly failed to show up for hearings and probation meetings. There were two warrants out for his arrest – one issued in August in Prince George’s County, Maryland,and another from 2014 in Montgomery County. The low-level nature of the charges – both involving theft – meant that he could not be extradited from the District.
The seemingly minor nature of most of Johnson’s arrests triggered few if any alarms among those examining his record, which, while lengthy, lacked the typical indicators hinting at a potential for violence. In a system struggling to hold repeat violent offenders accountable, Johnson, who court records show was repeatedly screened for mental illness, barely registered among defendants accused of far more serious crimes.
Although officials call Johnson’s case an outlier, it has focused new attention on more quickly recognizing and dealing with low-level offenders who repeatedly violate the terms of pretrial and post-conviction release.
His most serious conviction came in June for assaulting a police officer, but that too was a misdemeanor. It earned him one of his longest jail terms – 35 days. In September he was charged with his only felony – assault and robbery – but the case was dropped when the victim did not cooperate.
Only at a Dec. 20 court hearing did Johnson’s entangled relationship with the criminal justice system start to stand out. But even then, according to police and court officials, there was little chance of Johnson being further detained.
David Benowitz, a criminal defense lawyer in the District who is not involved in Johnson’s case, said the justice system is “not designed to handle” people with serious mental health issues whose crimes are at the low end of the spectrum. He noted that “with Mr. Johnson’s prior record of theft-related offenses . . . I don’t see that any judge would have taken that as a red flag that he would have been a physical danger to anybody.”
Cliff Keenan, director of the District’s Pretrial Services Agency, responsible for monitoring Johnson in his pending criminal cases, said that “when tragic events such as this one occur, they underscore the need for all members of our criminal justice system to continue working closely together as we carry out our respective missions.”
He added: “Collectively, we share the community’s concerns regarding public safety and want to reiterate our commitment to collaboratively administering a system that prioritizes public safety and fairly administers justice.”
Detaining Johnson would have meant keeping him jailed until trial, possibly an additional 60 days, on suspicion of committing an offense that has a maximum penalty of 180 days but typically carries a sentence of one to two weeks.
“No judge was going to give this guy any significant jail time,” Benowitz said. “There is a gap in the system for people with mental health issues who constantly get involved with the courts in minor ways.”
Authorities started to take note of Johnson’s record after his Dec. 17 arrest at CVS. The judge at his initial appearance deemed him a “risk of flight,” enabling officials to detain him for three days.
On Dec. 20, Johnson was brought before Magistrate Judge Sherry Trafford in D.C. Superior Court for a hearing to determine whether he should be held pending his trial.
Prosecutors had a problem.
“It appears we – I don’t have a witness, at this point,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kamilah House told Trafford, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Trafford understood the importance. “Ms. House has asked for an opportunity to see if that witness is going to get here today. That’s an indication to me that the government would seek continued detention.”
Authorities confirmed that the witness who failed to show was a D.C. police officer. Dustin Sternbeck, a police spokesman, said the officer was notified the previous day and “indicated he was unable to attend.” The officer had a conflict, Sternbeck said. He declined to elaborate.
The detention hearing could not continue without a witness and the three-day hold on Johnson expired that day. House tried once more to locate a witness but failed.
The judge had no other option but to free Johnson. Officials discussed putting him under the most strict level of supervision, which typically requires home confinement monitored by GPS.
But Johnson’s attorney, Donna Beasley, said she wanted her client screened for Mental Health Court, which wasn’t possible under the strict supervision program. And Johnson had no fixed address, making it difficult to verify that he stayed confined to a home. Beasley did not respond to a request for comment.
Trafford appeared reluctant.
“I think the problem is he’s not complied with any conditions of release,” she said. “He hasn’t complied with probation. He hasn’t reported for evaluation. … He just hasn’t reported at all. … I think there’s substantial concern.”
Trafford put Johnson on GPS monitoring, ordered him to stay away from the D.C. CVS he was accused of stealing from and told him to report the next day to a nearby office to be fitted with an ankle bracelet that would track his movements.
Johnson did not show up.
Keenan, the pretrial services director, said authorities followed standard protocol, which allows defendants to self-report for the device He said that his agency has previously been trying to secure space in the courthouse so that GPS devices can be attached immediately after a hearing, if deemed necessary.
When a defendant fails to report for GPS fitting, Keenan said the agency notifies the court no later then the next business day. Keenan said what happens next – such as an arrest warrant or another court hearing – would “likely depend upon the specific circumstances presented, such as the nature of the charge as well as the defendant’s record.”
Johnson had a hearing scheduled last week on an alleged release infraction in an unrelated case, and authorities said it’s possible the various issues were consolidated. He is now set to appear in court Friday on the murder charge.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Peter Hermann