In November 2013, reports surfaced that three San Jose State students had been charged with hate crimes The victim, a 17-year-old Black male, was subjected to verbal harassment, as well as physical injuries, when he resisted their attempts to place a bike lock around his neck. The victim’s family released a statement expressing outrage over the circumstances surrounding their son’s death, to which university president Mohammad Qayoumi responded, “Let me be clear: I am outraged and saddened by these allegations. They are utterly inconsistent with our long cherished history of tolerance, respect for diversity, and personal civility. ”
However, the death of former San Jose State student Gregory Johnson, Jr. and his mother’s efforts to obtain justice paint a very different picture. A few months ago Denise Johnson, mother of the victim, approached a member of San Jose Justice for Trayvon Martin, now known as Colectivo Justicia San Jose, with disturbing details surrounding the alleged murder of her son.
On November 22, 2008, Gregory Johnson Jr. was reportedly found dead in the basement of a Sigma Chi Fraternity House near San Jose State University, at approximately 2:45pm. Members of the fraternity claimed to have found his body in the basement, hanging in a sitting position with heavy-duty extension cord tied around his neck, as the result of suicide. Here are some of the facts surrounding this case that make it so disturbing, and suggest that further investigation is required:
- There was a party at the fraternity, the night before he was reported dead.
- Gregory’s body had no markings on his neck to suggest strangulation, which is odd considering reports stated he had been hanging for nearly 2 hours before his body was discovered.
- Gregory stood at a height of 6-foot-2 and weighed 185 pounds; the distance between the basement floor and water pipe from which he was allegedly found hanging measured out to 5 feet, 10 inches.
- Gregory’s mother was not notified of his death until several hours had already passed: grief counselors and university administration were notified of her son’s death before she ever received a call, and thirty days passed before her son’s body was returned home. The Santa Clara County Coroner did not allow her to view the body during that period.
- When Denise Johnson arrived at the fraternity house around 1:30 in the afternoon, it smelled like Pine-Sol because somebody had already disinfected the basement.
- His fraternity brother lied to the evidence collector and tampered with Gregory’s belongings: members of the fraternity told the evidence collector a cell phone at the site did not belong to Gregory, so it was left behind. Denise Johnson’s daughter-in-law recognized Gregory’s phone, and the fraternity members acknowledged that it belonged to Gregory before handing it over to the family. When Denise’s daughter-in-law went through the phone later that night, she found that all of Gregory’s pictures had been deleted and somebody had attempted to call his voicemail at 8:30 pm on November 22, nearly 6 hours after his estimated time of death.
- When Gregory’s body finally arrived at the funeral home, Denise Johnson took some pictures, after discovering a 6 inch crack in the back of his head, from which brain matter still oozed. His neck was also broken.
- The FBI took over the case, investigating it as a possible hate crime.
- The investigation was escalated to Washington DC, where all efforts to solve this crime stopped at the desk of Attorney General Eric Holder
To address the recent hate-crime incident, the university stated it would conduct an independent and transparent investigation. Additionally, fact finder “Mike” D. Moye completed a 405-page report, summarizing the events that took place and efforts that were employed to address any issues . This is all in response to on-campus demonstrations in which students joined the university’s Black Student Union for a series of “Black Lives Matter” rallies. If the university truly believes that Black lives matter, it has a duty to acknowledge Denise Johnson’s claims, reopen Gregory Johnson, Jr.’s case, and conduct an independent and transparent investigation. Denise Johnson deserves to know the truth about her son–she, too, deserves a detailed report outlining the investigation of her son’s death. Until the university begins to take the safety and lives of its Black students’ seriously, horrific events like these will only continue to pop up on our television screens.
From the university’s failure to notify Denise Johnson and Gregory Johnson Sr. of their son’s death immediately upon discovery, to the lack of bruises suggesting strangulation – but appearance of a head injury suggesting foul play – the university clearly failed to handle Gregory Johnson’s death appropriately. Gregory’s death was not further investigated; the FBI took over the investigation, exploring it as a possible hate crime, but that investigation ended in Washington DC at the desk of House Republican Eric Holder, without any explanation. This is the same Eric Holder who “did not prosecute IRS employees over allegations the agency improperly handled the applications for nonprofit status by conservative political groups; and misled Congress over whether he was aware of a search warrant issued for the emails of FOX News reporter James Rosen.” The university, as well as the U.S. government, has a duty to properly re-investigate the death of Gregory Johnson, Jr., and file charges against any person found to have been involved in his death. Additionally, the university must play a crucial role in ensuring that the students who have been charged with the most recent hate-crime are not only removed from the university, but also charged with felonies denoting that their hate-crimes violated civil rights. As a well-respected university in the heart of San Jose, California–one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the nation–it is the university’s duty to make it clear that racism has no place in our community.