'This is a job that weighs on you' 

Homicide Diary: Pulaski County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Johnson.

What follows is the latest installment of Homicide Diary, an ongoing project in which we speak to those who have been impacted by or who deal with the aftermath of homicide in Little Rock — victims' families, prosecutors, cops, community activists and others. As of May 6, the number of Little Rock deaths classified as homicides since Jan. 1, 2014 is 24. By this time last year, that number stood at six. In April of this year alone, there were 11 deaths classified as homicides in Little Rock, the highest single-month count in years.

He wanted to be a literature professor. That was his dream once. His closing arguments still show it sometimes, as he sneaks a literary allusion every once in awhile into the accounts of kids shooting kids over weed and slights on street corners, snippets of the great abstract struggle between chaos and order that authors have waged on paper since Gilgamesh. Somewhere along the way, however, he realized that he didn't want to spend the rest of his life staring down classrooms full of college kids who would rather be somewhere else, so he went to law school. Johnson has been with the prosecutor's office since 1990.

I really thought that I wanted to be a public defender. I wanted to protect people's rights. I wanted to make sure that people got fair trials. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "If you're waiting until after a person is charged, that ship has sailed." That's why I decided to be a prosecutor. 

I was hired in November of 1990. Back then, you started out taking complaints as a lawyer. People would come in and complain about cats going to the bathroom in their flowerbeds, or actual complaints where somebody came and beat them. So I did that. I got moved to circuit court pretty quickly, within a couple of months of working here.  

I had my first murder trial in August of 1991. It was a guy named Dana El Greco Frazier. He and some friends were drinking, and he spilled his drink on his pants. His friends started giving him a hard time about having pissed himself, so he got mad and shot one of them. My supervisor, the guy I was going to try the case with, left and went to the attorney general's office, so I got left with the case. Things were a lot different then as far as how the office was and how we did cases. We have two people sitting on all our trials now, and we certainly don't have someone who has been a lawyer for less than a year trying our murder cases by themselves. But I did, and he got convicted and got 40 years on it. The pressure must have been intense. But I can't remember it. I know it should have been a lot of pressure. I know I should have been scared. 

This is a job that weighs on you. People ask: How can you do it? There are people here who believe that we're all subject to some degree of post-traumatic stress. I think that might be an exaggeration. But it's something that you carry with you all the time. I don't know if you're a Stephen King fan, but I recently read the sequel to "The Shining," and there's a character in there who puts all the ghosts that haunt him in a box in his head. I think that, for me, that's sort of how it is. You have all these things you can't get rid of that haunt you, and to survive, you gotta put them in a box. You compartmentalize. You can go visit it, but if you're going to move forward, you'd better get a good lock.


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