A Loudoun Circuit Court judge today sentenced Douglas Vernon Johnson to 74 years of active prison time for wounding two Sheriff’s Office deputies in a Christmas Eve 2017 shooting. The sentence came after objections were made by Johnson, the NAACP and the very jurors who originally recommended a sentence of more than seven decades.
On Dec. 24, 2017, three deputies responded to a domestic dispute at a Sterling home. That altercation involved Johnson, a now-42-year-old U.S. Army combat veteran, and his then-19-year-old daughter. After determining that Johnson was the primary aggressor, the deputies resolved to arrest him, which prompted Johnson to jump into his closet, grab a .45-caliber handgun and fire it three times during a struggle with the officers, hitting one in his arm and both legs and another deputy in her leg.
Johnson, a Black man, was arrested and charged with 11 felonies. Following a week-long trial in August 2019, a unanimous 12-person jury sentenced him to 40 years in prison for two counts of attempted capital murder, 10 years for two counts of malicious wounding, 18 years for two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of attempted capital murder and two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of malicious wounding, and six years for three counts of maliciously discharging a firearm within an occupied building. That prison time is recommended to be served consecutively—meaning Johnson would spend a total of 74 years in prison.
Loudoun Circuit Court Judge James P. Fisher on Wednesday imposed the full 74-year sentence, with an additional three years of suspended time for each of the 11 counts—or 33 years additional suspended time in total, with five years of active probation time following his release from prison. That means Johnson could serve a prison term of 107 years in all.
Fisher, after commending the deputies for their “heroic” actions, said his sentence was not meant to disregard Johnson’s military service and crime-free past, but to show that the decision he made had consequences.
Johnson’s defense attorney, Edward Ungvarsky, asked for Fisher to impose a sentence of 74 years with 54 years suspended, effectively giving Johnson 20 years of active prison time.
Ungvarsky argued that the lengthy sentence was, in fact, a dismissal of Johnson’s service as a combat veteran who served the U.S. during two tours of duty in Iraq and as a “quality person” to whom others gravitated toward.
Ungvarsky noted that five of the 12 jurors from the August 2019 trial, in affidavits, claimed that they did not adequately understand the sentence they were recommending—specifically that they were under the impression they were sentencing Johnson to concurrent, not consecutive, prison time.
“My understanding is that we sentenced Mr. Johnson to 18 years in prison,” one juror said. “We wanted to sentence him to less time,” another juror said, according to statements submitted by Ungvarsky.
Two of the jurors in their affidavits said they felt five years of prison time would be adequate for Johnson’s crimes.
“The jurors thought—incorrectly as it turns out—that the recommended sentences were to be concurrently served,”Ungvarsky wrote in a Sept. 23 pre-sentencing document. “Their intent was for Mr. Johnson to serve twenty years in prison.”
Ungvarsky reiterated that alleged confusion again on Wednesday.
“Seventy-four years is not what the jurors wanted,” he told Fisher. “They didn’t recommend consecutive time.”
But Fisher pointed out that during the trial, the court clarified for the jury, after jurors had sought that clarification, that the time they were recommending would be consecutive and not concurrent. Fisher told Ungvarsky he felt the affidavits were inadmissible and an improper attempt to impeach the jury’s August 2019 verdict.
During the sentencing hearing, Johnson’s two sisters testified to their brother’s character while the wounded deputies testified to the physical and emotional pain they experienced after being shot.
Deputy Katherine Grimley and Deputy Tim Iverson both asserted that Johnson tried to kill them and that he was not attempting to commit suicide, as was claimed in some witness testimony during the trial. Iverson said Johnson pointed the gun at him and Grimley, not at himself.
“He tried to kill us,” he said. “He had no intent to shoot himself.”
Iverson said Johnson has tried to shift the blame, to the jury, to the judge, to the military, to his initial defense attorney and to the deputies. Grimley said the appropriate consequences to Johnson’s actions “are to spend the next 74 years in prison.”
“Mr. Johnson knew exactly what he was doing,” Grimley said.
Before being sentenced, Johnson apologized for his actions.
“I take full responsibility for what occurred. It is my fault,” he said. “It’s my chaos. … I’m so sorry.”
Johnson’s sister, Erica Robinson, said Johnson was “loving,” “caring,” and “devoted” to his family.” Dara Jackson, Johnson’s older sister, said her brother talked about suicide on multiple occasions in the past as a result of the PTSD he suffered following his combat service.
According to trial testimony from Stephen Lally, a psychologist who evaluated Johnson in May 2019, Johnson “fully meets the criteria for PTSD” and depression.
The Loudoun NAACP echoed that concern. Last week, the organization called for the court to consider Johnson’s struggle with PTSD in the sentencing and emphasized that his condition was not given much weight during last summer’s trial.
“The system failed Mr. Johnson, a retired major in the U.S. Army, by stigmatizing PTSD among our veteran population. … The United States fails too many of our veterans after they have served, and this is clearly another example of that failure,” a Sept. 23 statement from the Loudoun NAACP reads.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Alexis Downing, on the other hand, said Johnson was not suicidal or in despair, but was “angry and full of rage.”
The NAACP and Ungvarsky also challenged the trial verdict because 100% of the jurors were white.
Last week, Ungvarsky was in court arguing that Fisher should throw out the verdict and initiate a new trial. Ungvarsky centered his argument on the notion that prosecutors used racist tactics when selecting jurors.
In his February motion requesting the new trial, Ungvarsky argued that three of the total 12 jurors, he claimed, were convicted of misdemeanors but failed to disclose those alleged convictions when asked during the voir dire juror selection process.
Ungvarsky claimed it was unfair to keep those white jurors on the trial because prosecutors ended up striking a final prospective Black juror who was convicted of a DWI—a Class 1 misdemeanor—in Loudoun County General District Court in December 2018.
“There is no race-neutral reason for this disparate treatment of similarly situated jurors,” Ungvarsky wrote in his request for a new trial. “In striking [the Black juror], the [county prosecutor] excluded 100% of qualified Black jurors and ensured a jury that was 100% white.”
Among other requests, the Loudoun NAACP requested the court examine the prosecutor who conducted the jury selection; permit Johnson’s sentence to run concurrently with no more than 20 years of time served; and allow Johnson’s sentence to be served in an in-person mental health facility.
According to the commonwealth’s March 2 response to Johnson’s request for a new trial, the only misdemeanor conviction prosecutors found against any of those three prospective white jurors was an assault conviction against one of them that occurred in 1986.
While he was held at the Fairfax Adult Detention Center awaiting sentencing, Johnson formed a nonprofit to help others with PTSD and depression, his sister said. That work is expected to continue as Johnson is transferred to the prison system.
Johnson next faces two cases filed by the deputies. Iverson and Grimley late last year filed civil lawsuits alleging Johnson assaulted and battered them. They are each seeking a judgment of $1.75 million and $350,000 in punitive damages from Johnson.