Every night at bedtime, Movita Johnson writes a letter to her son, Charles. He was shot to death in Philadelphia in a case of mistaken identity in 2011.
When her son’s killers were brought to justice on February 4th, 2013, Johnson pled to the judge for forgiveness for one defendant — who had turned himself in. Her statement led to a reduced sentence, but experts agree that social ramifications for mercy in the criminal justice system can often be complicated.
Johnson, now 47, was born and raised in Southwest Philadelphia, and has has felt the impact of gun violence for most of her life.
Before her ninth birthday, Johnson’s father, Allen Hargett, was shot to death in front of her. In 1992, her older brother Charles Johnson, for whom she named her son, was also killed. The list goes on.
By 2007, Movita’s children — then 14 and 16 years old — had known nine people who had been shot in their neighborhood.
Johnson says that she knew it was time to leave, and moved her family in 2008 to Lansdale, Pa., telling herself that her two sons would not “become statistics on the streets of Philadelphia.”
Three years to the day after moving, Movita Johnson buried her son Charles.
In January 2011, Charles Johnson had gone to pick up his pregnant sister, Charlyne Johnson, when he was shot four times near Washington Lane and Musgrave Street in the East Germantown section of Philadelphia. His mother — as well as media reports from that time — say it was a case of mistaken identity.
“It was like I could not breath,” Johnson recalls feeling when she got the news of her son’s death. “Like there was a foot in my chest.”
Two men were charged with the murder. One turned himself in, according to Johnson, and the second was captured after several months on the run.
On February 15th 2013, the jury came to a unanimous guilty verdict for the first-degree murder for one of the men.
“It felt as if someone finally took the foot out of my chest,” Johnson said.
While reflecting on the trial, Johnson explained how she never expected to feel empathy for two people who murdered her son, but while making her victim impact statement, she asked the judge to show mercy for one of the men.
Johnson remembers feeling that he was a product of his environment, a young man who had never known anything but what she described as a “fatherless drug culture”.
“From a human-centered, more emotional perspective, there is a lot to be said about sufferer empowerment” in regard to punishment, according to Stephanos Bibas, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written about mercy and forgiveness in criminal procedure.
Bibas explains that society cannot let a murderer walk free because of one victim’s plea for forgiveness, but that “the sufferer ought to be listened to and taken seriously,” and should have some influence on the measure of punishment.
“They are still human beings,” Bibas says, referring to the perpetrators, “and there is a still a possibility of a human relationship”.
Vernique Cottom, the wife of the defendant whom Johnson asked for mercy, reflects on the trial and her interaction with Johnson, specifically their tearful embrace upon meeting.
Cottom says that “Movita was the only one who could understand what I was going through,” adding that “you may not remember what a person does, but you will remember how they make you feel.”
The defendant for whom Johnson wanted to show leniency was facing the possibility of 20 to 40 years in prison for the murder, as well as two gun charges which each carried a potential seven-year sentence.
Both gun charges were dropped and the murder sentence was reduced to 12-to-24 years, according to Johnson, who says that the judge attributed the lighter sentence to her statement.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams supports the role of mercy in certain circumstances, but says he would prefer if defendants could find it long before they enter the criminal justice system.
Williams points out that “There are seven times the amount of people in prison, but that does not mean that we are seven times safer,” and suggests that cities could also fight crime by investing in children’s services and improved educational opportunities.
The number of inmates in state and federal prisons has increased nearly seven-fold from less than 200,00 in 1970 to more than 1.5 million by mid-2007, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization, which also notes that an additional 780,000 are held in local jails, bringing the total to 2.3 million.
At the same time, Williams agrees that a victim’s plea for mercy is not always enough to reduce sentences, stating, “A crime is against the peace, dignity, and tranquility of all of us”.
Movita Johnson looks to her son Charles as a martyr—called by God as a catalyst to help other people—and has created the Charles Foundation in memory of her son. The foundation advocates for children, to help them build skills and build self-esteem, and to teach conflict resolution to reduce youth violence and murder.
In the future, Johnson hopes to create homes for youths who have been involved in the criminal justice system, to teach them problem-solving, empowerment, and show them love.
In the meantime, she will continue writing nightly letters to Charles.
• Check GunCrisis.org next week for an update on the man who was sentenced in this case.