Everything about the video is cold. Cold blue/gray backdrop. Cold lighting. Cold, unblinking eye of the camera. Mitchell Johnson sits center frame. Watching the video, it's not hard to see why Bobby McDaniel — the Jonesboro attorney who was asking the questions that day in 2007 when the deposition for ongoing litigation was taken — says he often found himself wanting to leap across the table and punch Johnson in the mouth. Johnson, McDaniel said, talks about mass murder as if he were explaining how he lost a button off his shirt.
On the morning of March 24, 1998, Johnson, then 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, pulled a fire alarm at Jonesboro's West Side Middle School. They then fell back to cover, shouldered high-powered rifles almost as big as they were and watched for their prey to emerge.
A hunter from an early age, Johnson would have known to wait until his teachers and classmates were out of the building. Only then would he have flicked off the safety beside the trigger. Johnson the man claims he remembers almost none of it, but Johnson the boy killer knew how to shoot with a scope. He would have drawn a breath and held it, the gun stilling in his arms. The mannish child who had often spoken of becoming a minister would have willed himself not to flinch at the rifle's hard, good kick. That moment, hanging in space, would be the dividing line between so much, for so many.
Though the cold details of the Westside Middle School Massacre have long been known, it's only in the past two years that Bobby McDaniel has had success in his decade-long quest on behalf of the families of the victims to get Johnson and Golden's account of that day on the record. With Johnson's deposition now in hand, McDaniel recently gained approval from a judge, over the strenuous objections of opposing counsel, to take the no-questions-barred deposition of Golden (see sidebar). The judge ruled that McDaniel couldn't release that deposition to the public until the lawsuit against Golden comes to a conclusion, but at this writing, McDaniel is closer than ever to finally being able to compare the two killers' accounts of that day.
In the video of Johnson's deposition, Johnson — then 22 years old and almost two years released from a federal prison in Memphis, where he was held in secrecy and released in secrecy on his 21st birthday — speaks of emotion, but rarely shows any. It's tempting to read something sinister into that, to see a brooding, arrogant sociopath. Any thinking person, however, knows that a deposition is only a stone's throw from an interrogation, and the last place in the world you want your emotions to get the better of you. Lawyers devour overly emotional witnesses.
Still, watching, it's hard not to want that — the moment when Mitchell Johnson pauses, reflects, then asks heartfelt and tearful forgiveness for his crimes.
Given the rigid, age-driven caste system found in your average middle school, it's not really surprising that Mitchell Johnson wasn't exactly friends with his cousin Andrew Golden. Golden was two years younger than Johnson. The only reason they talked to each other was because they rode the same school bus.
By the time Golden approached Johnson with a plan to scare some of the people who had picked on him at school, Johnson was already a kid on the road to someplace bad. He was smoking pot, he told Bobby McDaniel, and was frequently on suspension from school for behavior problems, including one incident in which he punched a hallway heater so hard that the metal cover came off. His parents were divorced, and Johnson hated going to visit his father in Minnesota. By the time of the shooting, Johnson was self-mutilating, cutting his own arms with a knife. He wrote in a diary that after school he liked to take his shotgun, head into the woods, and shoot squirrels while pretending they were the teachers who gave him in-school suspension. Shortly before the shooting, his girlfriend had broken up with him. After his arrest, he told investigators that he had recently recalled being sexually molested by a male acquaintance of his family.