RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — More than a year after a deadly, officer-involved crash in Richmond’s southside, a trial began Monday to determine whether Officer Richard Johnson could be at fault.
A jury was selected and opening arguments were given during the first of what is expected to be a two-day trial for Officer Johnson, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with a crash that killed two teenagers in April of 2022.
According to information provided in court on Monday, Officer Johnson and trainee Officer DQuan Walker were at a call for service at an Advanced Auto Parts when they received an alert for a burglary in progress just before 11 p.m. on April 7, 2022. Attorneys revealed that the officers were in the secondary responding vehicle, driving about 10 to 12 seconds behind the first responding vehicle.
But Johnson and Walker never made it to the burglary call.
The Commonwealth argued that Johnson was driving 59.5 mph through the intersection of Bells Road and Castlewood Road — well above the 35 mph speed limit in that area — when he ran a red light and his car T-boned a sedan with Jeremiah Ruffin, 18. and Tracey Williams, 19, inside. A sergeant with the police department’s crash team testified that there was no evidence of braking by either car, and no evidence of skid marks.
Ruffin and Williams were ejected from the sedan and later died from their injuries. Attorneys noted that neither teen, nor Johnson, were wearing their seatbelts. Defense counsel said in court Monday that Walker and Johnson also suffered injuries.
A special grand jury previously indicted Johnson on four charges related to the deadly crash, including two counts of involuntary manslaughter, and the misdemeanors of reckless driving and failure to yield the right of way. Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, accompanied by another prosecutor on Monday, dropped the failure to yield the right of way charge. Johnson pled not guilty to the other accusations.
In July 2022, the Richmond Police Department (RPD) reported that Johnson had been placed on unpaid leave. While, at the time, the department said that the administrative leave was pending the completion of the criminal process, Judge Clarence Jenkins, Jr. referred to Johnson as a “former” RPD officer in court on Monday. However, an RPD spokesperson confirmed that Johnson was still with the department.
Last week, Williams’ mother, Tiara Williams, agreed to a $3.1 million wrongful death compromise settlement with Johnson and the City of Richmond. The civil suit was originally filed for more than $200 million, claiming that Johnson did not take steps to prevent the crash, did not activate the police sirens and was driving at twice the speed limit when he went through a red light.
Williams’ and Ruffin’s families watched a live video feed of Monday’s jury selection from another courtroom, before entering into the main courtroom once the panel was finalized.
The defense asked jury members about previous experiences with law enforcement officers, and, at one point, the judge and lawyers on both sides had to discuss what to do about members of the jury pool who said that they had prior knowledge of the crash.
New jurors had to be called in, and a final panel of 14 jurors was decided just before 1 p.m.
The prosecution and defense teams both delivered opening arguments on Monday, as well as showing video of the crash, and photos of Williams and Ruffin.
The prosecution argued that Johnson “made series of bad decisions,” including breaking an RPD rule to not drive more than 15 mph over the speed limit. The prosecution referred to these decisions as “gross negligence” and a “disregard for life.”
Prosecuting lawyers also pointed out that Johnson had been a field training officer for less than a month at the time of the crash. They said that he graduated from the basic academy in February 2021, and then finished his field training officer training and was officially an RPD FTO, or mentor for new officers out in the field, on March 10, 2022.
Defense attorney Ed Nickel said in his opening arguments that while the crash was tragic, it was not necessarily a crime.
He expressed that Johnson was responding to an active emergency and that he did his due diligence, including putting on his lights and sirens and tapping his air horn before going through the intersection, but that he had an obstructed view and could not see Williams’ and Ruffin’s vehicle until they were already in the intersection.
He also said that it is other drivers’ responsibility to yield to emergency vehicles.
These are arguments that Johnson also expressed in a court filing in response to the lawsuit.
In their own opening arguments, the prosecution said that, while the law provides exceptions for emergency vehicles, an officer is still required to provide “due regard for the safety of others.”
In his arguments, Nickel also pointed to mistakes that Williams and Ruffin allegedly made that night — neither were licensed drivers, they were speeding and they didn’t yield at the intersection.
Nickel added that while Johnson suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash, video of that night shows the officers still out of the vehicle to give aid to Ruffin and Williams.
Video evidence and witness testimony
Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom on Monday. But previously unreleased video evidence was shown to jurors.
One camera angle was taken from a nearby warehouse, showing one police vehicle drive through the intersection at Bells and Castlewood Roads, before Johnson and Walker’s vehicle drove through the same intersection just seconds later. While the first police cruiser could be seen successfully clearing the intersection and presumably continuing on to the burglary call, Johnson and Walker’s vehicle could be seen, with its emergency lights on, colliding with the passenger sedan in which Ruffin and Williams were driving.
Although authorities previously said that Ruffin was the driver, an RPD sergeant with the department’s crash team testified Monday that investigators were unable to determine which teen was driving.
Additional camera angles were pulled from the body-worn cameras of various officers in the area, including Johnson and Walker. One angle showed the scene at the Advanced Auto Parts in the moments before the burglary call at a separate location came in, while others showed the view from inside Johnson and Walker’s police cruiser as they left the retailer and began making their way toward the burglary. The officers’ body-worn camera video showed that, while driving along Richmond Highway/Route 1, they went through three green lights, before reaching the red light at Bells and Castlewood Roads, through which Johnson also drove.
Attorneys and the RPD sergeant noted that both officers’ body-worn cameras came flying off of their bodies because of the impact of the crash.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys argued that the traffic light at the intersection was yellow for Ruffin and Williams as they drove through.
Additional evidence in the form of photographs were presented by Commonwealth’s Attorney McEachin and introduced as evidence, showing mangled vehicles and the damage to nearby property and roadway as a result of the crash.
The trial is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, April 25. Johnson’s defense team said that he would take the stand to testify.