Criminal investigation into arrest of black student opens

Updated

Virginia officials have opened a criminal investigation into the arrest of a young African-American student early Wednesday, following community outrage over the bloody arrest.

Officials will be conducting both a criminal and administrative investigation, state police said Thursday afternoon in a statement, to determine whether a crime was committed and whether police acted within the “agency’s policy.” Gov. Terry McAulife called for the investigation following the arrest of Martese Johnson, 20, in the early hours of Wednesday.

MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts, 3/19/15, 2:34 PM ET

UVA official recounts arrest of college student

Dr. Marcus L. Martin, the vice president for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia, talks with Thomas Roberts about the fallout from an arrest of a UVA college student by officers from the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
“I’m very disturbed,” the Democratic governor said Thursday. “To see the photos I can tell you as a parent, I have a son about the same age in college. I have a daughter in college. I was very disturbed by the pictures I saw yesterday … I want an independent investigation I want to know exactly what happened.” 

John made a brief statement Thursday through his lawyer. “I trust the scars on my face and head will one day heal, but the trauma of what those officers did will stay with me forever. We cannot allow a few officers to ruin the trust,” he said.

University of Virginia students continued protests on Thursday, marching through the campus, library and dining hall chanting “black lives matter,” a rallying cry that rose in prominence after the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Erin Garner in Staten Island, New York.

More than 50 students gathered midday, according to one demonstrator and third-year student Mary Topp; dozens can be seen in videos and photos posted on social media marching through campus buildings like the library and dining hall.

Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control arrested Johnson at 12:45 a.m. Wednesday outside a local bar, where police say he was denied entry. According to Johnson’s lawyer, police took Martese to the ground, striking his head on the pavement, causing significant bleeding. Johnson later received 10 stitches. 

“It happened so quickly,” witness Bryan Beaubrun told student newspaper The Daily Cavalier. “Out of nowhere I saw the two officers wrestling Martese to the ground. I was shocked that it escalated that quickly. Eventually [he was] on the ground, they’re trying to put handcuffs on him and their knees were on his back.”

A large group of students rallied against the arrest on Wednesday evening; the graphic image of Johnson’s bloodied face – taken by Beaubrun – that has been widely circulated on social media and a hashtag circulated by protesters #JusticeforMartese has tweeted thousands of times. Hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons encouraged students to protest the arrest on Wednesday.

Topp, a friend of Johnson’s, told msnbc that students are particularly outraged because of the kind of person he is.

“He’s touched the lives of so many people and he’s so dedicated to making this university a better place,” she said in a phone interview. “For this to happen somewhere where he continuously gives all his time and effort to is just really sad.”

“This is not something that should ever happen. I don’t know why it happened; that’s why we need to have an investigation,” said University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan at the rally. Earlier in the day she wrote to students to say that she’d appealed to the governor’s office to investigate the incident. Sullivan told NBC4’s David Culver: “I thought about how this poor man’s mother would feel when she saw that photo. Because I knew how it made me feel.”

On Thursday, in a letter to parents, she alerted them to the situation. “We have not yet clarified all of the details surrounding this event, but we are seeking to do so as quickly as possible,” she said.

Martese Johnson spoke briefly at the rally, requesting a respectful environment and thanking supporters. “We’re all part of one community,” he said to cheers. “We deserve to respect each other, especially in times like this.  Thank you.”

Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control stated in a statement Johnson was approached after being denied entry to a bar and later taken to the hospital to be treated for his injuries. They promised to cooperate in the state’s investigation.

Johnson was arrested by Alcohol and Beverage Control special agent J. Miller on charges of obstructing justice and profane swearing or intoxication in public. Miller wrote on the arrest warren that Johnson was “very agitated and belligerent.” The special agents involved in the incident will be limited to administration duties throughout the investigation. 

Johnson’s lawyer, Daniel Watkins, said Wednesday his team would be fighting the charges, describing Johnson as a model student: a double major in Italian and Media Studies with a number of leadership positions on campus and no criminal record. 

“As evidenced by both his academic and extracurricular achievements, Martese is a smart young man with a bright future,” Watkins said in a statement. “We are preparing to investigate and defend this matter vigorously. Please keep Martese in your prayers during this difficult time.”

Campus and community leaders balked at the arrest on Wednesday.

“We are outraged by the brutality against a University of Virginia undergraduate student that occurred in the early hours Wednesday, March 18, 2015,” wrote two members of UVA’s diversity leadership – Marcus L. Martin, M.D., a professor of emergency medicine, and Maurice Apprey, the dean of African-American Affairs and professor of psychiatry at the school – in a letter to students and staff

“In these situations it’s critical that we get all of the facts about exactly what happened as quickly as possible. I commend Governor McAuliffe for his swift decision to ask the Virginia State Police to investigate this situation,” Attorney General Mark Herring added in a statement Wednesday afternoon, according to the student newspaper.

The Alcohol and Beverage Control force has been previously accused of using an excess of force. Last summer, the city paid a UVA student more than $200,000 as part of a settlement after agents swarmed her car with weapons raised, thinking she and her roommate had purchased beer, which was actually sparking water. Asked about the incident, McAulife said he’d been working to reform the police force because of that incident.

“I actually brought in Ryan Washington, a former sheriff, brought him into the ABC when I became governor to make sure we are doing everything I can with the law enforcement personnel, to make sure they are doing their job appropriately,” he said. “I don’t want to pre-judge my own investigation but I can tell you this I am very concerned.”

Police Brutality

Criminal investigation into arrest of black student opens

Updated