Part 2 in an occasional series about the case of Jeffrey Johnson
The story of Jeffrey Johnson, a now 61-year-old Detroit native who has spent the last 40 years in prison convicted of 1st degree murder for a crime he still swears he did not commit, first appeared in the Michigan Chronicle as a two-part story more than a decade ago after the case was first brought to my attention by a colleague and Jeffrey’s Uncle Odis Buffington who had been working to free his nephew for more than two decades at that time.
On November 15, 2017, the story was revisited as the first in what is intended to be a series of stories and updates of Jeffrey’s situation, framing the issue of how the frequent use of plea bargains too often short circuits actual justice, especially in the case of African American males. Following publication of that story, the older brother of Kevin May, the 15-year-old young man Jeffrey had been accused of killing, contacted the Chronicle requesting a meeting on behalf of May’s family members to tell their side of the story and to correct assertions they claimed to be incorrect in the earlier articles. This represented the first time the Chronicle had been able to make any direct contact with May’s family to talk about a murder that happened 40 years ago, but that continues to cause considerable grief and pain to this day for both families – those of the deceased as well as those of the accused.
You don’t just take a deep breath and get over it when a member of your family is murdered – or when a member of your family is accused of that murder.
For any number of reasons the story of Jeffrey Johnson was compelling; Jeffrey had no police record of any sort, not even a parking ticket, as his Uncle points out repeatedly to this day. Nothing on record of him being a troublemaker. He had even gone to Denver, Colorado to complete schooling to become a certified auto mechanic. Once inside prison, convicted for the murder of 15-year-old Kevin May, records verified his uncle’s statement that Jeffrey had not received any sort of reprimand for bad conduct while in prison either. And, most notably, there was reason to believe that if Jeffrey had simply pled guilty to the crime, regardless of whether he was actually guilty, then he could have taken a plea deal offered by the prosecutor and gotten released in less than 15 years. But Jeffrey did not accept the plea deal and maintained his innocence for more than three decades. Why would he so steadfastly maintain his innocence for all those years?
Michael May, Kevin May’s cousin, said he believes the plea deal was withdrawn. However, Valerie Newman, who was with the State Appellate Defender’s Office at the time of an interview last year, indicated in an interview that had Jeffrey accepted the initial plea deal then things may have turned out differently for him, suggesting that a deal had not been withdrawn before Jeffrey had at least one chance to accept.
Since the original story about Jeffrey appeared all those years ago, he has even received a commendation for possibly saving the life of a prison guard, helping to escape a prison uprising where the guard was in certain danger.
So how could someone matching this description possibly be guilty of cold-blooded murder of a 15-year-old child in the dead of winter? Truman May, Kevin May’s older brother, met with the Chronicle and Bill Kubota, a photo journalist from Detroit Public Television (DPTV-62), together with several other family members, to finally tell their side of what actually happened that night. To say the least, they had a lot to add to the picture.
When Kevin was killed “I will never forget it. I remember the day precisely,” said Truman. “I was sitting in the kitchen eating chicken and rice. They told me (his brother Kevin and cousin Jordy) ‘Well we fixin’ to walk over to grandma’s house’, and I’m like ‘which one?’ because both my grandmas live so close you just can’t say that.”
They told him where they were going, then left.
“I’m sitting there eating, and the phone rang about 30 minutes later and I heard mother holler and drop the phone. And I’m like, what’s wrong? ‘Kevin just got shot’. ‘What?’ So she runs next door to my neighbor, William Gibbs, tells him and they jump in the car. I don’t know if I ran or drove, I can’t remember. But I was 16. To be honest with you, I grabbed my mother’s .38, was on my way.
“When I got around there, I ran up – my mother and them beat me there – and I ran up and looked at my brother’s face and I seen fright like he was scared. I don’t even remember seeing no blood, I just seen the fright.”
After the initial shock, “I had kinda lost it, and they (police officers) kinda peeled the gun outta my hand” because he was headed for Jeffrey’s house.
“Because they said he done it. That’s what the crowd said. ‘Jeffrey done it! Jeffrey done it!”
Truman said that another boy named William Worthy, now dead, and his cousin, Julius ‘Jordy’ Persail ‘Jordy’ all saw the shooting of Kevin close up, because they were all returning from a trip to the store together. Persail is still alive, but hesitant to speak publicly about the event although he testified during the trial.
Police also grabbed Kevin’s other older brother Jose in front of Jeffrey’s house because he said he was about to go inside Jeffrey’s house after him.
“He didn’t just shoot at my brother, he shot at all of them and it just hit my brother,” said Truman.
“We always thought it wasn’t really my brother he was trying to hit, it was Julius” because of how Julius teased him about being gay.
Michael May, who was in 2nd grade at the time and later testified at the trial, remembers his grandmother had about 30 grandchildren, many of whom would frequently gather at her house to watch TV and play. Michael said he remembered when the news came that “Kevin was lying down on the ground. I remember my auntie immediately took off. No shoes on in the dead of winter. She took off and he was lying down there. She was the first to arrive on the scene even before the police arrived.”
But prior to the actual murder, Truman and family members contend this was not the first confrontation with Jeffrey. There had been an earlier incident in the spring which resulted in a physical confrontation between Truman and Jeffrey. According to Truman, Jeffrey “wound up on the losing end,” then went away and came back soon after with another man and a shotgun. The near-fatal event was prevented by Truman’s aunts who came out of the house to talk Jeffrey down and force him to leave. Michael remembered his aunts telling the children to lie down on the floor before going outside to deal with Jeffrey. When asked what prompted the incident in the first place, Truman said Jordy had discovered Jeffrey was gay because he had made a pass at his friend William Worthen, so he began teasing him which set Jeffrey off.
“So you know what a little kid gonna do when they found out, and they gonna come and tease him. Now Jeffrey’s much older, you know, and I guess he couldn’t take the teasing. This is how me and him got in this altercation about my cousins,” said Truman.
“I guess the gun was for me, but nothing ever happened because my aunts and them were there, and they kinda got the situation under control.”
Months later, after Kevin had been shot and Jeffrey Johnson was awaiting trial, Michael May claimed Jeffrey was hardly the victimized upstanding citizen portrayed in earlier Chronicle articles.
“He would terrorize us and chase us. Block the only way we would have home. And one day me and my cousin, she’s like 4 years older than me, and at this time, like I said I’m in second grade, we literally ran blocks and blocks to get away from him and was trapped from getting home because he had our way of getting home blocked. …These are things you never forget, these are things that devastated our family,” he said.
But Jeffrey was later convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Once inside at Jackson Correctional Facility, he later had an encounter with Truman May who happened to be serving time at the same facility, also for murder. Truman recalls the encounter probably happened around 1995-96. The two were later placed in separate facilities once their volatile shared history became known.
“Now you gotta know what’s going through my mind, right? I’m furious, right? I was so mad, I had tears in my eyes.
“I went to the phone. Called my mother. I said ‘He’s here, ma. So you know what I’m fixin to do’. I got my cousins with me [in Jackson]. Four of them. They got natural life (prison sentences) so they got nothing to lose. You know what my mother told me? Leave him alone. So. You know how I felt. But I had to sit down, and think, because that’s her son. And if my mother told me to leave him alone, I gotta leave him alone.”
Truman said he thinks his mother could have made the decision out of fear that if he killed Jeffrey inside prison then the crime would easily be traced back to him and he would never be released. But his four cousins, all of whom had natural life sentences (two have since died while in prison) had no chance of ever getting out and felt they had nothing to lose.
“But they had to do it [obey Truman’s mother], because she said.”
What Truman remembers most, however, is what Jeffrey said to him.
“The guy told me he was sorry. I told him look, my mother told me to leave you alone. And he said could you tell your mother I’m sorry.
“But now you’re saying you didn’t do nothing.”
“Our family ain’t no rude, harsh people. We know the guy’s done 40 years. We’re not saying keep him in there, or kill him. We’re not saying that. Tell the truth though.”
After Kevin’s murder, Truman recalled it was his father who may have taken his son’s death the hardest.
“His whole demeanor changed…I never in my life seen my father cry until that day. Never in my life. And I know that’s what killed him. Started drinking a little more. My father wasn’t even 50 when he died. My father was 47. I seen it suck the life out of him. Jeffrey don’t know; you killed the man’s whole inside.
“Two days later he bought a house for almost $100,000. He said, ‘I can’t live here.’ He moved. Packed up everything.”
For Michael May, only 7 years old at the time, Jeffrey’s incarceration was the only thing that gave him some measure of peace, and he doesn’t think Jeffrey should ever be released.
“Once he got locked up I was able to sleep. Because I was always thinking Jeffrey’s going to come through the window and kill us. These are things that I grew up thinking until I knew he was locked up and behind bars.”