NAACP mulls civil rights claim in athlete’s death

Published 12:46 am Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pursuing allegations of a civil rights violation or filing a lawsuit are two options the Mississippi NAACP will discuss with the family of a high school football star whose shooting death during a police traffic stop was ruled accidental.

“If they decide they want to pursue a civil rights violation in the federal court, that’s something the NAACP can help them with,” said Curley Clark, vice president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A grand jury concluded that Billey Joe Johnson, Jr., a 17-year-old running back, accidentally caused his own death when he grabbed the barrel of his hunting gun after a George County sheriff’s deputy stopped him for a traffic violation.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The grand jury decided the evidence in a state investigation showed Deputy Joe Sullivan could not have shot the teenager after he pulled him over for running a stoplight early Dec. 8.

“We’ve got to get enough evidence to contradict what the grand jury says,” said George County NAACP president Willie Gaines, who was among dozens of friends and family who crowded into the courthouse in Lucedale to listen to the report.

Johnson’s father declined to discuss what would be the family’s next step.

“I’m still unsatisfied,” said Billey Joe Johnson Sr. “It’s a lot more went on than what they said. I know he wouldn’t reach down and grab no gun by no barrel.”

The attorney for Johnson’s family has said an independent investigation he’s conducting also will continue. Attorney Jerome Carter of Mobile, Ala., said he’s hopeful the family will have access to all the evidence presented to the grand jury.

During a one-day session Monday, the grand jury heard testimony from 30 witnesses and reviewed photographs of Johnson’s body, audio recordings of the 911 call and of the radio traffic. They also saw two videos taken from the dash cameras of the Lucedale Police Department patrolmen who responded to the scene of the shooting.

Sullivan’s vehicle didn’t have a dashboard camera.

Although there were a number of eyewitnesses, it appears no one saw the actual shooting.

“The grand jury finds that these witnesses each saw pieces of the incident and when viewed together, clearly shows that Deputy Joe Sullivan was in his patrol car at the time of Billey Joe Johnson Jr.’s death,” the report said.

Arthur Fairley, a friend of the Johnson family, said the teen had been stopped by law enforcement officers before, but he had never been arrested.

George County Sheriff Garry Welford said he was not aware of any of his deputies ever stopping the athlete prior to Dec. 8.

“All he was going to get was a little bit of a warning,” the day Sullivan stopped him for the traffic violation, Welford said.

Sullivan was hired at the department about one year ago. When asked where Sullivan had worked previously, Welford said he wasn’t sure. Welford said Sullivan has declined to be interviewed. The report said the deputy had 19 years of law enforcement experience.