RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Richmond Police officer accused of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving in connection with the April 2022 deaths of two teenagers on the city’s southside is one step closer to learning his fate, after arguments wrapped Tuesday evening in the second of a scheduled two-day trial.
The 12-member jury was escorted out of the Richmond City Circuit Court room to begin deliberations at approximately 5:15 p.m.
The charges against Officer Richard Daniel Johnson stemmed from an April 7, 2022 collision at the intersection of Bells and Castlewood Roads, just off of Richmond Highway, at approximately 10:43 p.m.
Evidence introduced in court this week revealed that Johnson and his trainee Officer DQuan Walker were the backup officers at a separate scene at a nearby Advanced Auto Parts that night when they heard a call come in for a burglary in progress. The call was labeled as a Code 1 — the highest priority — because of an alleged gunshot in the area, and a female who described to Department of Communications (DEC) personnel over the phone an unknown number of individuals trying to break in to her residence through a window as she stood in the hallway.
Defense attorney Peter Baruch cited that information as the reason Officer Johnson was speeding as he entered the intersection at Bells and Castlewood Roads, despite a red light there.
But Richmond City Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin argued — and witnesses with the Richmond Police Department (RPD) testified to confirm — that Johnson and Walker were not explicitly instructed to respond as a Code 1, using their emergency lights and sirens and likely operating at a higher rate of speed. Prosecutors also presented evidence to show that there were a half dozen other officers already tasked with responding to the reported burglary in progress at Clarkson Road.
Tuesday was primarily spent hearing witness testimony, including from Officer Johnson himself, who was brought to tears when describing the gruesome scene of finding Williams in the street after the crash. His defense team of Baruch and Ed Nickel argued that, despite suffering a traumatic brain injury in the crash, Johnson did not exhibit negligence or a disregard for life because he immediately went to perform CPR on Williams. Nevertheless, she died at the scene. Ruffin died a number of days later at the hospital. The testimony was such that Williams’ and Ruffin’s families left the courtroom temporarily.
The Commonwealth also called RPD Investigator William Kress as a witness on Tuesday. Part of the investigator’s testimony included playing previously unreleased body-worn camera video from his interview with Officer Johnson the day after the crash while Johnson was hospitalized.
“I don’t know how fast I was going,” Johnson could be heard telling Kress in the video. “I feel like it wasn’t that fast.”
Johnson then estimated that he may have been driving 45 mph, but crash data and witnesses in court clarified that Johnson accelerated to a speed of 59.5 mph in the moments before the deadly crash. Prosecutors argued that such a speed was in violation of RPD rules, which allow the primary unit responding to a Code 1 incident to drive up to 15 mph over the posted speed limit in an area — which was 35 mph in the area of the crash — if they are not in a pursuit situation.
However, defense attorneys made the counter argument that that limitation is a department rule, but not Virginia law. The Code of Virginia does, though, require emergency responding vehicles and drivers going through a red light to meet certain standards, including maintaining a due regard for the safety of others, which prosecutors said was not the case in the way Johnson was driving that night.
In addition to the families of both victims and that of the defendant, RPD Acting Chief of Police Rick Edwards and Deputy Chief Victoria Pearson could also be seen in the courtroom later in the afternoon.
After the Commonwealth rested its case, Nickel and Baruch raised a motion to strike. In other words, the defense team argued that the outcome of the case against Johnson should be decided by a judge, and not a jury. However, the judge disagreed, and attorneys were permitted to proceed with their closing evidence and arguments ahead of the jury’s deliberation.
In the Commonwealth’s closing argument, McEachin showed the jury photos of the teens’ mangled Buick, along with photos of Ruffin and Williams. She argued that Johnson was victim-blaming by pointing out that the teens did not have their licenses and were not wearing seatbelts.
She also noted that Johnson had testified that he may have been having an adrenaline rush, but that he walked back how that may have changed his perception in questioning from his own defense attorneys. McEachin argued that with all his hours of training and experience, especially as a police officer, Johnson still made the decision to drive through a red light, and did so without slowing down and clearing the intersection.
“You are the conscience of the community in this case,” she said to the jury, further alleging that Officer Johnson went well beyond just being reckless.
In the defense’s closing arguments, Baruch disputed the assertion that Johnson was victim blaming, calling it rude.
“It’s not blaming, but it explains why,” he said. “Nothing we do today can help us bring back the people that these loved ones are grieving about.”
Baruch continued on to argue that if Ruffin and Williams had been wearing their seatbelts, they might not have died as a result of the crash. He also said that Johnson was driving faster than the speed limit in order to help his fellow officers and civilians who were in need of assistance, referencing the burglary call to which Johnson and Walker had been responding.
“This is not a civil case,” Baruch said to the jury. “Don’t make this worse.”
Jurors exited the courtroom for deliberations at approximately 5:15 p.m. The judge indicated that the verdict could still come down Tuesday night. The panel of 12 jurors must agree unanimously on whether to find Officer Johnson guilty or not guilty on each of the three charges.