AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Dorian Johnson met Michael Brown about five months before Brown was shot and killed last August in Ferguson, Mo. The anniversary's coming up this Sunday. They had been walking together when they encountered police officer Darren Wilson. It was Johnson's account of what happened that day that helped inspire the protest chant hands up, don't shoot. It became a hash tag, a slogan on T-shirts and stickers, and a symbolic gesture by NFL players. Johnson told his story in several TV interviews in the days just after Brown's death...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV INTERVIEW)
DORIAN JOHNSON: He shot again, and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and he put his hands in the air and he started to get down, but the officer still approached with his weapon drawn, and he fired several more shots.
CORNISH: The Department of Justice did not find evidence to support that account. Already a controversial figure, Dorian Johnson came under even more scrutiny after the DOJ report and has tried to stay out of the spotlight. But this week, a new interview with him was published in the St. Louis alternative paper, Riverfront Times, and Danny Wicentowski did that interview. He joins us now to talk about it. Welcome to the program, Danny.
DANNY WICENTOWSKI: Thanks for having me, Audie.
CORNISH: So we heard a little clip of Dorian Johnson, there, speaking in a TV interview. How has his account of what happened on August 9 changed in the last year, if at all?
WICENTOWSKI: You know, it's actually been a remarkably consistent account, but it's also, you know, a piece of witness testimony that speaks to this greater challenge of figuring out what happens on - during two minutes, during a particular day at a particular time. You know, in the year, sort of, since Dorian Johnson, sort of, made, sort of, that famous line where he said that he was shot with his hands up in the air, as well, saying that he was shot in the back, really the only significant change was that Johnson said that he actually did not see Brown shot in the back. He didn't see a bullet strike his friend. But he had seen the gun shot happen, and in the same moment, Brown turned around. And so he, sort of, linked these two actions in his mind, and he initially presented it as fact. A lot of people, though, took that as a lie, as a - sort of a manipulation that shows Dorian Johnson as sort of this untrustworthy and even malicious kind of witness.
CORNISH: So remind us what happened to him in the immediate aftermath. Obviously, he was part of the investigation, but kind of what was he up to or where was he?
WICENTOWSKI: Well, the interesting thing is that he told me - is that he kind of drops off the map at that point. He gets in contact with the NAACP in St. Louis, and they, sort of, shuttle him off in this, sort of, protective custody in various hotel rooms and really only went out to get necessities. He was there with his girlfriend and his daughter at the time, and he basically watched a lot of TV. And he told me that it was, sort of, this overwhelming experience where it was the only way that he could sort of feel connected, was just to watch TV endlessly in these hotel rooms.
CORNISH: About nine months later, he's actually arrested at a block party in St. Louis, and he's charged with resisting arrest. It makes national news again. What did he tell you about the period around that time?
WICENTOWSKI: He told me that that was actually - you know, before that arrest, he had felt that he was finally getting back to sort of where his - he had hoped his life would be taking him. He had found a job, finally. And then this block party comes up, and, you know, there's a confrontation with a police officer and his brothers. He's arrested with his brothers, and he feels that he was being harassed and targeted by the police department for the things he'd said about Michael Brown.
CORNISH: Throughout the article, you do get a sense that he feels persecuted. How did he explain himself to you?
WICENTOWSKI: I think he finds himself in this very strange tension in that he is - he saw Michael Brown die just a few feet away from him. He has, sort of, been, I would say, mythologized almost as this part of the Ferguson story, but he was also someone who was really kept outside of a lot of the action. He was really on the other side of the glass, so to speak. He couldn't participate in the protests. He didn't really have any contact with the protest activists or leaders, and I think he is a guy who really wishes he could be involved and could have lent his own voice to, you know, the whole situations that played out over those next weeks and months.
CORNISH: We heard earlier this week on the program that Officer Darren Wilson actually received enough donations from supporters to buy a new home, and he's more or less staying out of the public eye with his wife and daughter. Johnson also has a daughter, has - what kind of support has he had in these last few months?
WICENTOWSKI: I was not able to get a definite answer on the exact support. He actually has four children. He just - actually just had a baby daughter with his girlfriend. And from what I could tell, he got a lot of help from the NAACP, he got a lot of help from family and friends, including Michael Brown's family, which were the people he first ran to after the shooting. He went to Brown's grandmother's house. But beyond that, I didn't get a sense that he was really getting a lot of monetary or material support. But again, I was not able to ask him that directly with his lawyer there and I wasn't able to confirm that.
CORNISH: I don't know what you were expecting to find, but in what way did Dorian Johnson surprise you or what aspects of his story struck you?
WICENTOWSKI: I think it's the sense of the trauma that he experienced of watching his friend die. I mean, the fact that he's told the story so many times and has been doubted and threatened because of what he's claimed to do, he was really, you know, just there for that one incredible moment where something happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. You know, the only thing about Dorian Johnson that became significant was what did he see and did he lie? And eventually, how much of a liar is he?
And I think he was frustrated by his inability to, sort of, control how was image was put out there and, eventually, I think you can see in the later interviews that he did during the grand jury, you know, where he's being asked, you know, the guy who just killed your friend is not going to be indicted. How do you feel? And you can see such a bitterness in his face where he just has to say again, I know what I saw. I know that he shot Michael Brown. This is wrong. And I think that was something that was very apparent during our interview last week.
CORNISH: We mention the Department of Justice report that did not support his version of events. What happened? What was the reaction that Dorian Johnson had to face after that?
WICENTOWSKI: Well, I think, even in the earliest days after Michael Brown's death, especially when Dorian Johnson's, sort of, account started coming out, lot of blogs and a lot of ones that, sort of, align themselves as, sort of, these conspiracy theorists or right-wing blogs, they really tore him apart. But I think that DOJ report was very difficult for him, and he kind of felt, you know, they just made a judgment call. They were going to believe someone else and not him. And when I asked him, it seemed that he had a similar reaction to the grand jury where he felt that there had just been this, sort of, top-down decision that no one was going to look further into Darren Wilson's guilt or not. They were just going to decide that this was too cloudy and that Dorian Johnson's account simply wasn't supported.
CORNISH: What's been the reaction to your piece?
WICENTOWSKI: I think it's brought up a lot of the similar objections to Johnson's testimony. And again, a lot of it involves his character. They say, you know, Johnson is a proven liar. And that goes back to his 2011 arrest when he had stolen a backpack in Jefferson City as a college student, and he had given a fake name to a police officer. But I think it's brought up a lot of the issues and a lot of the anger because we are now in the one year anniversary, and we're trying to evaluate the significance and, sort of, historically frame, you know, what did the violence in Ferguson mean? What did the hands up, don't shoot movement mean? What did Michael Brown's death accomplish? What did it set off? And I think a lot of people look at Dorian Johnson and they see that there is an element or perceived element of untruth, and they see it as, again, sort of tainting the entire movement that has sort of sprouted after the August 9 shooting.
CORNISH: Danny Wicentowski, his piece on Dorian Johnson is in the latest issue of the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
WICENTOWSKI: Thanks for having me, Audie.
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