Weissman: Exploring the Mind of a Racist Killer
Run, Johnny, Run:
Exploring the Mind
of a Racist Killer
By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Investigation
Author's Note: In the early 1980s, my wife Anna and I investigated a racial killing in my hometown, Tampa, Florida. This is the story, which I recently rewrote for a new book-in-progress, And Then You Die: True Stories, Take Two.
The Graveyard Shift
2:15 a.m. Two cars swung sharply into the brightly lit parking lot of Wag's, an all-night restaurant in one of the deserted shopping centers of Tampa's urban sprawl. Two men in their mid-twenties stepped out of a dusty Mercury Cougar. Two girls, barely out of high school, joined them. The men were black, the girls white.
Inside, Johnny watched as the darker man moved toward a padded plastic booth, his arm around the blonde girl's shoulder. Johnny's face turned sour.
"Them nigger-loving bitches!" he swore. "Just look at 'em. Betcha their fathers don't know where they are."
Tough, dirty, and unshaven, Johnny looked older than his nineteen years. He had a deep tan and sun-bleached hair hanging to his shoulders, and was wearing grimy jeans and a sleeveless camouflage T-shirt, which showed his heavily muscled arms. A large knife hung from his belt.
"That shouldn't be allowed to happen," he snapped. "Someone ought to stop it."
Sitting with his back to the two couples, his friend Mark turned and glared. He was shorter and slighter than Johnny, with a scraggly beard and long blond hair tied back in a ponytail.
Two girls in Pizza Hut uniforms sat at a nearby booth. Mark and Johnny knew one of them, a girl called Karen Serbian.
"Do niggers offend you?" Mark asked.
Karen told him not to make a scene.
Standing, Johnny looked around. Sodden from a long day of heavy drinking, he had a bladder full of beer.
On his way to the men's room, he walked past the two couples. He looked at the dark-haired girl: he found her attractive. Seeing the blonde nuzzling one of the blacks, he felt disgust. How could she do it?
"Howdy," he said. He smiled coldly.
What exactly Johnny said and did in the next few minutes remains patchy, pieced together from police and medical reports, court records, personal interviews with the people who were in Wag's, and 60 hours of in-depth conversations that my wife Anna and I taped with Johnny many months later.
Returning to the table, he let his mind wander. "I sure wish I had my gun," he said.
"My forty-four. Let's go to Nigger Town and raise some hell."
"Your gun ain't big enough for that," said Mark.
"Yeah, let's do it right. Let's get us a machine gun."
"Nah," Mark countered. "That's too good for 'em."
"Or maybe a howitzer," Johnny went on. "That's what we need - a big old howitzer, a cannon, and some tanks. That'll blow them all way."
Finishing their meal, the two boys got up to leave. As they passed the two couples, Johnny again fingered his knife.
At the cash register, he stopped to pay the bill. His blue eyes looked mean and angry.
"Was everything all right, sir?" asked night manager Steven Harpster.
"Yeah," said Johnny. "Except for them Niggers in the corner."
"I'm sorry, sir, there's nothing I can do about that."
"Yes there is," said Johnny, looking Harpster straight in the eye. "Yes, there is."
Walking out of Wag's, Johnny started to shake. He was sweating. He felt the tingling up his back and along his arms and shoulders, like tiny electric shocks. His "crank bugs" were starting to bite.
Mark grew nervous. He had never seen Johnny look so edgy.
As they sat in his mud-splattered Ford pick-up truck, Johnny felt his senses sharpen. His forty-four Magnum lay on the seat under a crumpled jacket. He had left the holster unbuckled.
"What are we doing?" Mark asked.
"I'm going to wait on them," Johnny answered. "I'm gonna blast 'em. I'm gonna blow 'em away."
Walking the girls to their car, the two black men bid them a quick good night, and then slipped into the Mercury Cougar. Backing out of the space, the car eased slowly onto the road. The girls drove behind them.
Johnny followed. After about a mile, the girls turned off the main road. The blacks waved, and then sped into the fast lane. Johnny stayed with them. The blacks scooted back to the right. Johnny stuck tightly to their tail.
Ahead, a car weaved drunkenly along the road. As it veered left, the blacks passed on the right and darted ahead. Staring into the night, Johnny saw the black men speeding from him, trying to get away. With a rush of excitement, he raced after them.
"I can catch them on the Interstate," he shouted.
Gaining on the car, he pulled alongside. With one hand steering, he picked up the gun, reached out his window, and squeezed the trigger. The glass shattered: the passenger slumped in his seat.
"I think I got one!" Johnny yelled.
He fired again, brakes squealed, and the Mercury lurched wildly out of control.
Seeing the exit straight ahead, Johnny floored the gas pedal and fled from the Interstate.
"Are you crazy," Mark shouted. "You just shot somebody."
Taking Mark back to get his truck, Johnny worked out a plan. He would stay out of town for a while, he told his friend. He would change the big mud tires and take the truck to his dad's place in the country.
"Don't say nothing," he warned.
An Isolated Incident?
Like a short, aging Brer Rabbit, Bob Gilder scampered through the brier patch, rushing lickety-split to outfox the rascals and keep an uneasy peace between white folks and black.
Local president of the National Association of Colored People, the NAACP, Gilder peered out from an angelic face set on top of the full, rounded belly of an ebony Buddha. In his leaner, meaner years, he had shaved his balding skull; now a touch of gray graced his temples. He had earned his place as a moving force in Tampa's political life, becoming both a figure of love and respect, and a target of hate and suspicion.
In the early hours of March 25, 1983, he was sleeping soundly in his modest West Tampa home, when his telephone started ringing. There'd been a shooting on the Interstate, he heard. One man had died; the other was at Tampa General with a wounded hand. With surprising speed, Gilder jumped into his battered gold Coup de Ville and rushed to the hospital, where he learned that the survivor - Michael Fields - had told police some of what had happened at Wag's.
Gilder drove to the restaurant, up the main road, and along the Interstate to the exit where the shots were fired. The killers had chased the two men nearly ten miles, he noted. They had clearly meant business.
Driving through the major black neighborhoods, Gilder spent the day talking with people on the streets and in the joints and pool halls. We have to avoid a riot, he told them. Innocent people - black and white - would get hurt, and only the racists would gain. Though many whites saw him as a firebrand, Gilder had become the city's leading firefighter, putting out the flames before they could spread.
"I had my ear so close to the ground, I could hear the rats pissing on the cotton," he told Anna and me during one of dozens of rambling interviews.
The black man who died - a computer student at Tampa Tech named Wayne Everett Raines - had parents living in one of the public housing projects. Gilder stopped by to express his sympathy. He would not let the police play games with their son's death, he assured them.
In the meantime, detectives had found one of the Pizza Hut employees, who identified the two white boys, showing police where Johnny lived. In all, the detective needed only ten hours from the shooting to catch Mark Cheek and John Wade Carter.
Praising the quick arrests, Gilder urged the black community not to seek their own revenge. "Just an isolated incident," he told reporters. "The killers were kooks."
After midnight, Gilder went back to Wag's, accompanied by a hulking six-foot-eight bodyguard with a large pistol poorly concealed under his leather jacket.
"We wanted to see what the hell was going on, and what kind of reaction we'd bring," he explained. "If Wag's happened to be a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, then I needed to know about it, and needed to know right away."
They also had come to stop any trouble. Several blacks had called Gilder about going to Wag's. "They wanted to go as a challenge," he said. "They weren't going to hide under their beds, like their parents had done when the Klan went riding by."
Others were coming to see if they could settle scores with any of Carter and Cheek's friends. Gilder liked the new attitude, but he could not afford to let it get out of hand.
He especially worried about what might happen to John Carter's mother June, who worked with black children in the city's Headstart Program. Gilder had served as director of the county's War on Poverty, setting up Headstart. He never knew June well, but after the shooting he dissuaded angry blacks from making trouble for her.
"I wanted to make sure that she didn't go to work one day and somebody hit her over the head with a brick," he told us.
At their jobs, on the streets, in the bars and restaurants and churches, and throughout the sprawling housing projects, wherever black people came together over the days and weeks that followed, they asked the same question: Would the two white boys get away with murder?
Everyone had a story to tell, a theory to offer. Few agreed with Gilder when he called the shooting "an isolated incident."
Miller, a soft-spoken friend of the Raines family, was playing baseball one evening. His team - the Astros - had just lost, when four whites drove up. "Stop!" one of them shouted. He pointed a gun out the window. "We gonna shoot you, Nigger."
Miller froze. All he could see was the hand holding a thirty-eight. One of his friends started to run. Terrified, Miller ran with him. "I thought they was gonna make us get in the car," he recalled. "They used to come by and make you get in the car and take your money and your dope and beat you up."
Darryl Raines, one of the dead man's younger brothers, was riding his bicycle, when a car cut in front of him, hitting his front wheel and flipping him on to the hood. When Darryl picked himself up, the driver - a Northern woman - started cursing him. "You dumb blackass nigger!" she called.
"Your vocabulary ain't picked up no better in all these years?" Darryl shot back.
He had promised himself to beat the hell out of the next white person who called him "nigger," but the woman had a little boy sitting in the car with her. "That's where the kid who jumped Wayne first got that junk from," Darryl said to himself. "He got it from his parents."
The stories went on. A black maid told of white youngsters driving by and shooting into her house. Black professionals told of being called "nigger" and getting assaulted for mixing with whites. A university professor from Nigeria told the local paper that white people periodically drove across his lawn, tearing up his grass. Another black found swastikas painted on his car. And only five days before the shooting, a black family looked on helplessly as their new home burned to the ground. They had built in a predominately white neighborhood, and someone firebombed the house.
Racial violence was an everyday fact in my hometown, and Tampa's black people had learned to live with it.
"We just can't agree that last week's cowardly and heinous ambush of two black men was completely an 'isolated' case," argued Rudolph Harris, Sr., in the local black-owned newspaper, the Sentinel-Bulletin. A high school teacher turned polemicist, Harris put the onus on Tampa's white leaders. None of the city's top officials cared enough to stand up and condemn the shooting. "Failure to do so," said Harris, "only subtly tells others that it is all right to do such things to black people."
Why the deathly silence? Harris blamed the white media - and Bob Gilder. Instead of pushing white officials to speak out when blacks got attacked, the reporters had only one question: were the blacks going to riot? "That's where Mr. Gilder comes in," Harris charged. The reporters go to Gilder, and he gives them "placating remarks."
"He coolly plays the role of an African Chief as NAACP President, and we the black citizens of Tampa one big obedient African tribe."
Harris wanted something different - for the city's top officials to speak out against the racial shootings. But his challenge went unmet. White officials said little, and - except for Gilder and the Sentinel-Bulletin - black leaders said even less. Whatever they felt in their hearts or said to their friends, they never spoke out where white folks could hear them.
"The silence gets thick as molasses," wrote James Tokley, another columnist for the Sentinel-Bulletin.
"Tampa's black community could neither say nor do anything collectively," he said. And that was "because white women were involved. A taboo! A taboo!"
"People in the South - especially when black men and white women are concerned - are afraid to say 'SEX.'"
"White women - young, old, crippled, or crazy - are still looked upon as a collective treasure that black men cannot have (whether they're interested, or not!). Big taboo! Everybody's afraid."
Mark Ober pawed through the files on his desk. A big, cuddly bear of man, he had a soft, round face, a thatch of long black hair, and a ready, rolling laugh. He was still in his mid-30s, and already one of the State Attorney's top prosecutors. In his last dozen murder trials, he had never failed to convict. Against six defendants, he had gotten sentences of death in "Old Sparky," Florida's ancient electric chair.
Sure-footed rather than high-flying, Ober approached his newest case as he always did, one step at a time. John Carter had driven the truck and shot the gun. From his remarks at Wag's, his wait in the parking lot, the chase, and the shooting, Ober had no doubt that Carter had intended to kill. Ober would charge him with murder and attempted murder in the first degree.
Mark Cheek had joined in the racial remarks at Wag's and admitted to "egging on" Carter before the fatal shots. That made Cheek fully responsible for the actions of his partner in crime. In Ober's reading of the law, he should charge Cheek with the same crime as Carter.
Far more controversial, Ober came to believe that he needed Cheek on the witness stand. No one else could testify that John Carter pulled the trigger. Without Cheek, Carter's lawyer could argue that his client had merely driven the truck, when Cheek picked up the gun and fired the two shots. How could the state prove any different?
More important, who besides Cheek could speak to premeditation? Only Cheek could testify that Carter said, "I'm gonna shoot 'em."
Ober knew that Gilder, the survivor Michael Fields, and the Raines family would hate it, but in return for Cheek's agreement to testify, the prosecutor let him plead guilty to manslaughter with a sentence of five years probation.
Carter's trial began on Monday, December 3, 1983, in the courtroom of Judge Dennis Alvarez. A short, jaunty figure in his thirties, Alvarez had a solid reputation with local attorneys, who saw him as "a pretty reasonable guy." The license plate on his little brown Datsun read "De Judge," and he ran his courtroom in an easy, relaxed manner.
Out of court, Alvarez held strong opinions, especially about the old-time Crackers, whose racial bigotry had hurt Tampa's large population of Italians, Spaniards, and Cubans. Alvarez had grandparents from both Spain and Sicily, drawn there by Tampa's once thriving cigar factories, and half the Latinos in Tampa called him cousin, he said with a laugh. Proud of his heritage, Alvarez seemed truly incensed by the racist killing John Carter stood accused of committing.
Alvarez gave the impression that he would come down hard on Carter. With first-degree murder, Florida law had only two penalties - death in the electric chair or life behind bars for at least twenty-five years before any chance of parole. The week before the trial, Carter's attorney filed a motion asking Alvarez to rule in advance that the circumstances calling for death did not apply. Alvarez refused. If the jurors came back with first degree, as he fully expected, he'd let them recommend life or death. Then "De Judge" would decide.
Refreshed from a weekend fishing, Mark Ober began picking the jury from the hundreds of potential jurors that the courthouse computers had summoned. Each lawyer could exclude a limited number without giving a reason, or ask Alvarez to dismiss any who seemed obviously unsuited.
In most of his cases, Ober looked for middle-aged men, with a B.A. at most. He liked military people and conservative law-and-order personalities. As a prosecutor, he wanted jurors who sided with authority.
But a racial killing defied his usual stereotypes. A younger, more liberal juror - the kind he normally rejected - would more likely feel outrage at a racial killing, while an older conservative, especially from the South, might share John Carter's anger at seeing a black man nuzzling a white woman. "To be blunt," Ober told us, "I don't want to get a guy on the jury who says, 'Hey, these two niggers deserved to be shot.'"
Towering over the prospective jurors, Ober came on strong and warm, like an overgrown schoolboy. "How many people here have never made any ethnic or racial jokes before?" he asked. "Would it offend you that Wayne Raines and Michael Fields walked into a restaurant with two women of the white race?"
His questions sounded awkward; he knew they were not likely to unmask the kind of bigot he wanted to exclude. Worse, he barely waited for answers, racing from one prospective juror to the next. Not once did he stop to sound them out, probe their biases, flush out their feelings. He seemed embarrassed to ask his questions, and eager to avoid their answers. Somewhere deep in his soul, he hated to allow racial feelings to play any role in the way he tried the case.
"The law is colorblind," he told us. "Race has no business entering into it."
Carter's lawyer - Bennie Lazzara - could not have agreed more. A trim, athletic man in his late thirties, he had kinky black hair and deep-set eyes peering out through gold-rimmed glasses. Few would call him handsome, but he had a strange charisma.
Taking his turn, Lazzara used a team approach. Ray Doyle, a young psychotherapist, helped him feel out the prospective jurors, as did Bob Polli, an ex-hippie who had just graduated from law school. They knew the jurors they wanted - middle-aged, motherly, and white, a jury that would show sympathy for Johnny and his family.
Since Judge Alvarez allowed each side enormous latitude, Lazzara wasted little time in getting to the heart of his defense. John Carter was guilty, he told the potential jurors. He pulled the trigger and killed Wayne Raines, shot and wounded Michael Fields. But the evidence would show that John had been drinking all day and all night, he said. And, as Judge Alvarez would instruct them, they could not find anyone guilty of premeditated murder if he was too intoxicated to form the specific intent to kill.
How did the prospective jurors feel about a law like that, Lazzara asked. Could they accept that a person could shoot at someone and still be too drunk to intend to kill them?
Casually dressed in a brown linen sport coat, Lazzara moved close to the prospective jurors, working to build rapport, as Doyle stared intently at their faces and body language. "Listening just to what people say is like listening to the words of a song and not the music," he told us.
On Tuesday evening, Ober and Lazzara finished picking the twelve jurors. Only one was black, a smartly dressed, statuesque woman from New York named Stephanie Baker. Of the others, several were motherly, and some obviously knew alcohol, just as Lazzara and his team had wanted. As to racial attitudes, no one could know. Ober had failed to uncover them.
Wednesday morning, Ober rose for his opening. The only question was premeditation, he told the jury. Did John Carter consciously decide to kill? Or was he too intoxicated to form the specific intent? If he drank only enough to arouse his passions and reduce the power of conscience, they must hold him fully responsible.
This was not premeditated murder, Lazzara countered. Premeditation meant a conscious decision to kill - not a conscious decision to chase, not a conscious decision to scare or harass or do anything else but kill, he argued. John Carter was simply too drunk to decide consciously to kill, too drunk to reflect upon so grave a decision.
The two boys were going to scare the blacks, said Lazzara. To harass them. "It was ridiculous conduct that needs to be punished," he yelled. "But it was not planned, not schemed. They were just a couple of drunken kids in a truck."
In the front row, a grey-haired woman listened to every word. Short and overweight, with a lingering air of faded beauty, June Carter fought to hold back her tears.
The witnesses brought few surprises. Steven Harpster, the night manager, and two waitresses from Wag's told what they had seen and heard, as did the two Pizza Hut employees and the two girls who had been with Wayne Raines and Michael Fields.
Michael's testimony was the most dramatic, giving a human face to the horror of the chase. Cross-examined by Lazzara, he admitted that he never saw who did the shooting. "You know him now?" Lazzara asked. "It's that man right there?" He pointed to Johnny, showing the jurors that he was not trying to get his client off.
Several witnesses testified that Johnny had been drinking since morning. But was he too intoxicated to premeditate murder? Ellen Conn, a tall, red-headed waitress, who had seen him at a distance, thought he was drunk. Edna Contreras, who waited on Carter and Cheek, disagreed. He had no trouble ordering, she said. He did not slur his words or spill any food.
On the stand, Mark Cheek contradicted himself. Did Carter say he was going to shoot the blacks? Yes, said Cheek, proving premeditation. No, said Cheek, he said he was going to shoot at them, suggesting to some that he only intended to harass, but not to kill. Did he remember specifically what either he or Carter had said? Not really, said Cheek, confirming Bob Gilder's doubts about Ober's "sweetheart deal."
Afraid of what Carter might say, Lazzara declined to put him on the stand, and Judge Alvarez refused to allow expert testimony from the psychologists and psychiatrists that the lawyers had sent to examine Carter. Lazzara was pleading intoxication, not insanity, and that was for the jurors to decide.
In his closing on Friday, Lazzara again gave vent to any anger the jurors might feel. What the boy did was outrageous. It stank. He deserved to be punished severely. June looked horrified as Lazzara savaged her son.
"This kind of stupid, macho racism from a twenty-year old is something I hoped was gone from this country," said Lazzara. "This kind of ridiculous drinking is something that can't be condoned."
"But," said Lazzara, "it is not premeditated murder."
Lazzara turned to an easel with blow-ups of the legal definitions: "Killing with premeditation is killing after consciously deciding to do so."
"To make a conscious decision to kill, under law, requires some clear, positive, good thinking, free from being egged on, free from a mind clouded with a day full of drinking beer, free from a lot of things that John Carter's mind wasn't free from."
It also required time to reflect, he said. "Even if you make that conscious decision to kill, you're not guilty of premeditation - no one is, not John Carter or anyone else - unless there was a period of time during which he reflected upon it."
John Carter committed "an impulsive, careless act, not a deliberate, not a contemplated, not a worked-out-beforehand act," said Lazzara. "This was a reckless, senseless shooting to scare, shooting to be an idiot."
"Mark Cheek and John Carter are guilty of the very same thing. They are both guilty of manslaughter."
Lazzara pointed to another possible choice on his flip chart, murder in the second degree. He read the words - "a depraved mind, an act done from ill will, hatred, spite, or evil intent."
"It's clear he was acting grossly and flagrantly; it's clear he was being a macho man," Lazzara suggested. "But I don't know whether his act was done from ill will, hatred, spite, or evil intent."
They would not have the choice of finding John Carter "not guilty," he told them. He had asked Judge Alvarez not to give them that verdict form. "I told you from the beginning I wasn't here to get John Carter off," he said.
Consider the level of alcohol in John Carter's brain, he told the jurors. If you do that, I believe you'll find him incapable of having premeditated the intent to kill.
Ober began his rebuttal, thrashing about for a time and garbling much of what he had to say. Compared to the nimble Lazzara, the big man had trouble with broken-field running.
After the shooting, Carter talked of hiding his truck, Ober reminded the jurors. Why hide the truck? Because "what I've done is wrong." Why did John clean his gun? Why did he take out the used shells and replace them? Because he knew the probable consequences of his act. At most, it was partial intoxication, said Ober.
John Carter had been sober enough to make one decision after another, Ober insisted. "Let's talk.... Let's drink.... Let's go eat.... Let's take my truck... Let me drive.... Let's go to Wag's."
On the Interstate, John Carter decides to pull out the gun, said Ober. He is driving. He has to pay attention to the road. He decides to cock the gun. He points it out the window, down at the car slightly behind him. He decides to fire. Boom! He controls the recoil. He decides to cock it and fire again.
If Carter was simply trying to scare the blacks, he could have waved the gun at them, said Ober. He didn't. He shot them. And he knew what he did was wrong. "It is very simply premeditated."
Boys Will Be Boys
Friday afternoon, Judge Alvarez read the law from a standardized set of instructions, and then sent the jury out. He did not think they would need much time to reach their verdict.
Taking their first vote, the jurors split down the middle. Six voted first degree; six wanted second. "We all agreed that manslaughter was ridiculous," the foreman Courtland Skipper told us.
He had favored first. He did not want a vicious animal like Carter out on the streets, he told his fellow jurors. "The guy was obviously a loon, or he wouldn't have done what he did."
Allen Wolking, a white-haired Southern gentleman, took the opposing side. He had carefully written the legal definitions on little scraps of paper. What John Carter did fit second degree, he argued. Johnny was wild, reckless, non-thinking, irresponsible, not a boy who set out to murder.
He might have intended to shoot, Wolking conceded, but never to kill. Neither Carter nor Cheek ever said, "We're going to kill 'em."
Hunters don't say that, countered Linda Bishop, a good ol' girl from a well-known Cracker family, but also a computer professional. Hunters don't say, "I'm gonna kill a duck," she argued. Hunters say "shoot."
In all things, Bishop insisted on cool logic. "How can I prove I intend to shoot you?" she asked. "If I tell you I'm going to shoot you, if I wait outside ten minutes, and then I pull out a gun and shoot you, are you going to tell me it was a lucky shot?"
The jurors took a second ballot. Again they split six to six.
Carter was never that intoxicated, Bishop pressed on. He drove his truck, walked into the restaurant, ate his food. He was not blind drunk. He did not crawl around on the floor. He did not try to do something, then forget what he was doing. That, she said, was the kind of drunk the intoxication defense required.
"I was pretty sure I got everyone to agree," Bishop recalled. "But every half hour one of the little ladies would say, 'Well, he'd been drinking and his mind was muddled.'" Bishop found it infuriating. With computers, she solved a problem, then moved on. But her fellow jurors kept rehashing what she thought they had already decided.
Their logic also left her baffled. How could it be premeditated, one of the men blurted out. Carter didn't know the people he shot. He had never seen them before that night.
Chasing blacks was just what that kind of people did, said Debbie Jean Trotter, at 24 the youngest of the jurors.
When he was a boy, said Wolking, he had pulled pranks. Nothing as bad, of course. And no one had gotten killed. But his games, like young Carter's, could have ended in tragedy. Perhaps the best speaker in the group, Wolking talked in his soft, southern voice, a kindly grandfather thinking back to the reckless ways of his youth.
"Nobody seemed surprised when he said it," recalled Stephanie Baker. As the only black on the jury, she listened with hidden horror at what she heard in his words. Boys will be boys, and some like to chase "niggers." Even as he condemned Johnny's outrageous behavior, Lazzara had played to that attitude. In Wolking, he had found his mark.
They voted again. Teresa Jones, who had emigrated from Britain to work as a circus performer, shifted from second to first. The gun had swayed her. It was so big, so horrible, that John must have used it to kill, she thought. The jury stood seven to five for first degree murder.
The jurors became more agitated. "They were carried away and started shrieking and screaming and shouting at each other," Skipper recalled. "I'd have to bang on the table to shush some of 'em up."
Mildred Woolridge, the wife of a retired Baptist minister, "was the least obnoxious of us," Skipper recalled. "But she was very rigid. She came out at the beginning that she wanted second and that was all she'd agree to. She seemed uptight at the prospect of a first degree conviction."
If the jurors agreed on first-degree murder, they would have to decide whether to put Carter to death, which - Skipper concluded - was what Woolridge wanted to avoid.
Someone tried to push Wolking to change his mind: he balked. He was not going to vote for anything but second degree, he declared. They could decide between that and a hung jury. Call it hung and tell the judge right now, he said. That would save the taxpayers money.
His ultimatum hung in the air.
Confused by Mark Cheek's testimony, the jurors asked to hear it again. As they filed past the defense table where Johnny was standing, they averted their eyes, steering away as far as they could on their way to the jury box.
The court reporter began to read back his stenographic tape. He read fast and without inflection, rarely pausing to catch his breath. In his flat tones, Cheek sounded even more self-contradictory than in the flesh.
Just before 9:00 p.m. the court reporter finished. The jury had not eaten, but Judge Alvarez sent them back. At 10:00 p.m., the jurors still split seven for first, three for second, and two undecided.
Throughout the long evening, Wolking tried to smooth over his differences with the black juror, Stephanie Baker. "To me he was very polite, maybe even over-polite," she recalled. "He would help me in and out of the van. He was sort of trying to explain to me that he wasn't being a racist."
At the hotel, Baker shared her feelings with Linda Bishop, her roommate for the night. Baker felt deeply offended by Wolking's talk of his "boyish pranks." So did Bishop. "Yeah, he used to go out and string up black people," Baker quipped. Maybe he never killed anyone, but he sounded awfully understanding.
When the jurors met again Saturday morning, several had changed their minds. Only four now favored first, six wanted second, and two could not decide. Had Wolking's ultimatum forced the change, Bishop wondered.
Skipper had second thoughts about Carter's drinking. "He was too drunk to formulate an intent," the jury foreman concluded.
Virginia Wilson, a rounded, motherly woman with a huge brass cross on a chain around her neck, had already wavered from first degree to undecided. Now she doubted Mark Cheek's testimony. "I felt he was probably in no condition to remember exactly what was said," she explained. "I felt like Carter wanted to teach them a lesson. He was going to show 'em that blacks and whites better not go out together."
"He would never mean to kill," agreed Teresa Jones, the retired circus performer. "I don't think he's that type of boy."
For Jones, Allen Wolking said it best when he told how he used to do those things as a child. "Boys are just devilish," she recalled. "They get into so much mischief and don't really think before doing anything."
The jurors voted again. Ten favored second. Only Bishop and Baker held out for first.
They talked about likely sentences. If they voted for first, several people feared the possibility of a death penalty. If they did not, Bishop and Baker and one or two others worried that Carter might get off with only three years, the minimum sentence for any felony committed with a gun.
What if they ended with a hung jury, someone asked. What if the next jury was not willing to be fair? What if they moved the trial to some rural, "redneck" county?
Trust Judge Alvarez, several jurors argued. If they all compromised on second, he would give Carter a stiff sentence. If they did not, the trial would be moved, and John Carter might walk away with only a slap on the wrist. Stephanie Baker started to waver. A verdict was in sight.
The minutes dragged on. Bishop, the good ol' girl, finally cast the deciding vote. "It might be a shame to the community to have a hung jury," she told her fellow jurors. "But I would be more ashamed to put my name to second."
"Judge Alvarez," said the disembodied voice. "We gonna kill you, boy." The judge heard the threat on his answering machine. It sounded like a white man trying to imitate a black.
The call did not surprise him. He had spent the evening at a Rotary Club cookout in the eastern end of the county, where a couple of "rednecks" urged him to go easy on Carter. They had known the family for years, and thought "the boy done right killing that nigger for going out with a white girl."
Three days later - on Monday, April 2, 1984 - Judge Alvarez called the retrial to order. A bodyguard sat watching the spectators, while under his robes the judge wore a bullet-proof vest and carried a snub-nosed Smith and Wesson thirty-eight. "I never fired the gun before," he told us. "But I figured if anything happened, I'd create a lot of goddamn noise."
To add to his discomfort, Alvarez was having second thoughts. He still believed Johnny guilty of murder one, but now felt that the case should never have come to trial - not the first time, and certainly not the second.
Had Carter murdered a white man, the State Attorney would have let him plead to second degree murder, Alvarez assured us. But he killed a black, and Gilder had joined with the media to turn the killing into a major racial incident, which - said the judge - it was not.
"Forget the goddamn justice system," he told us with his characteristic candor. "Fuck it! Just like every other murder case, the only reason you try first is for political reasons. Ober was under pressure. Just read Gilder's remarks in the newspaper."
"All Gilder had in his mind was vengeance," said Alvarez. "He's lost a lot of respect 'cause every time a black is shot he starts raising hell."
From the opening gavel, the retrial promised new drama. Ober began by asking the judge to halt any contact between Johnny and his parents in the presence of the jury. Ober did not want the family to win sympathy, as they had in the first trial.
"You mean he can't say hello to his mom and his dad when they come into the room?" snapped Lazzara.
"That's precisely why I filed the motion," Ober cut in.
Giving the nod to Ober, the judge forbade any contact in front of the jury. June looked crushed.
Lazzara reintroduced his motion to rule out capital punishment. This time Ober offered no objection, and Judge Alvarez went along.
Johnny sat almost without moving, his hands folded on the table in front of him. Though he no longer had the electric chair to fear, the jurors would now find it easier to convict him of murder one, putting him away for a minimum of twenty-five years.
Ober began with enormous energy, eager to pick a more pliable jury. "I don't want anybody that's fair and impartial," he told Gilder in a fit of frankness. "I'm looking at who's going to be so outraged that they're going to find the guy guilty."
Grudgingly, he had come to accept that their feelings about the killing would likely depend on their racial attitudes. The law might be colorblind; juries were not.
"The racial overtones of this case supply the motive," Ober told the prospective jurors. "We have a man dead because of his race, and I need to know how you feel about it."
How would they feel if their daughter came home with a black? How would they feel if someone said they had just bought a new house and five "niggers" moved into their neighborhood? Did they know anyone when they were younger who teased blacks, threw oranges at their cars, or chased them as a prank?
Ober grilled the panel into the afternoon. As in the first trial, he talked more than he listened, and often gave the jurors no chance to reply. But he came away with a sense of where they stood on race.
Jury selection dragged into Thursday morning, as the lawyers picked their way through sixty prospective jurors. The going was grim, especially for the defense. "We've got a real fight," Lazzara told his team. "We aren't going to get off easy like last time."
Slowly finding his stride, Lazzara tried to immunize the jurors. He was not suggesting that racial reasons excused or justified the shooting, he assured them. But they also had to consider Johnny's youth, the way alcohol affected his decision-making, the role Mark Cheek played in egging him on. "You won't make race the central issue here, will you?" he asked. "Will you look at all the circumstances?"
He asked the jurors about their drinking. One had been arrested for driving drunk and sent to "alcohol school." Did they teach that a person might have his judgment impaired, but still walk away without staggering and talk without slurring his words?
No, sir, the man replied.
Do you think that's true, Lazzara pressed.
No, sir, said the man.
Yes, alcohol dulled a person's judgment, agreed another prospective juror, a former lieutenant colonel. "But they're not going to do anything that they're not predisposed to do," he said. "If you are the type of person who'll murder, you'll murder more easily. I don't think drinking is any defense at all."
Could he follow the law, asked Lazzara. It would go against the grain, the man replied. He also had problems with degrees of homicide and seemed to think Carter should be sentenced to death. "It cost us $12,000 a year to keep 'em," he said.
Lazzara feared these little bombshells would prejudice the other prospective jurors. But candor cut both ways, as Judge Alvarez felt compelled to strike the most outraged and outspoken.
Lazzara himself excluded every black, including one who knew June from Headstart. "We wanted to get a black person on if they could be fair," he told us. "But I had determined I was going to try for a white jury."
The test came with Mary Benjamin, a gangly black woman in her fifties. She had taken a seat in the jury box on Tuesday afternoon, and answered the lawyers' questions in her own quirky fashion. She was certain she could be fair to Carter, and would not be offended by his use of the word "nigger." She sometimes used it herself, she said.
Saving his few remaining challenges, Lazzara let Mrs. Benjamin stay until Thursday morning, when she mentioned that she had gone to the black American Legion post the night before. Did her friends tell her they had seen her on the TV news, Lazzara wanted to know.
Mrs. Benjamin said they did.
Did they try to talk to you about the case, he asked.
No, she said. They did not.
Lazzara felt certain she was lying. How could a gathering of blacks not discuss the case, especially with a prospective juror? Approaching the bench, he asked Judge Alvarez to strike her for cause.
Ober objected. How could Lazzara say she was lying? That was his own subjective reaction. Alvarez agreed, and Lazzara used one of his last challenges to strike her, leaving the jury lily white.
Beginning his opening argument, Ober told how the trouble had started at Wag's. "Little did young Wayne Raines know that because of the color of his skin, his life would be extinguished like a hunted animal by this man, Mr. Carter."
"Why was Wayne murdered?" Ober went on. "One reason and one reason only, and that is race."
"If you let your emotions get into it, you want to strike out against John Carter," Lazzara replied. But if they looked impartially at all the evidence, they would see what John did was not first-degree murder.
Mark Cheek took the stand Friday morning. He was so evasive that Judge Alvarez had to warn him. Michael Fields told with tears in his eyes how the two shots had shattered his life, but he knew nothing of Carter's intent.
In his closing, Ober talked of the car, the blood, the body of Wayne Raines with a gaping wound in his head. If John Carter had only meant to scare the two black men, why didn't he scare them in the parking lot, he asked. Because there were too many people there.
Why didn't he bump their car? Why didn't he run them off the road? Or, why didn't he use the other weapons he had in his truck - a knife, a three-foot stick, a machete?
"They're all non-fatal at a distance," said Ober. "He chose to pick up the most powerful handgun available to the general public."
Lazzara stood for his closing argument. So far, he had failed to set the terms of debate. He felt he was still scrambling to catch up.
Never had he known a case that so cried out for vengeance, he began. He repeated the word a dozen times. Vengeance was the kind of justice John Carter had given. Vengeance was the feeling the bloody photos and the gun and the memory of Wayne Raines incited. Vengeance was what the community wanted. But vengeance would never tell them what degree of homicide Carter and Cheek committed.
You could force the facts, he told the jurors. You could use vengeance and force premeditation. "We're not dealing with whipping up that kind of emotion," he said. "It was the whipping up of that kind of emotion that got us here in the first place."
He pointed to the definition of premeditated murder - "killing after consciously deciding to do so."
"There was never any discussion, never any plan, and never any scheme to kill anyone," he insisted.
He pointed to second-degree murder. "In the dictionary next to racism, they ought to have that for a definition, treating people with ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent." That defined the kind of bigotry John Carter acted from.
He pointed to manslaughter, killing by culpable negligence. He had already asked the jurors to reject a verdict of not guilty. Now he told them to throw the manslaughter verdict away as well. Don't consider it, he said.
At the defense table, Johnny gulped. If Bennie knew in advance he would throw out manslaughter, he had never warned his client.
The community was pressing them to bring back a verdict of first-degree murder, Lazzara told the jurors. The pressure affected everyone, and that was why Ober was trying to force the facts to fit first degree.
"I bite my tongue before I criticize that man," said Lazzara. "He's got a very tough job here. As a consequence, he's screaming out for vengeance."
You're going to want to strike out against John Carter, too, he said. "If you don't, you're not human."
But that would not be doing justice. Don't decide from emotion, he told them. Don't worry about community pressure. "Don't let your verdict be returned on race!"
Ober leapt to his rebuttal, repeating several times Lazzara's theme of "Justice or Vengeance!"
"I have never suggested, nor do I believe that you should find this man guilty out of vengeance," he declared. His voice grew louder. Nor had he forced the facts to fit premeditation.
"You don't have to like Mark Cheek," he said. "You may not want to take him home to dinner. I wouldn't either." But long before any so-called sweetheart deal, Cheek told the police that Carter said he was going to shoot the blacks. That proved the conscious decision.
Carter knew what he was going to do, Ober insisted. He saw Wayne and Michael walk into Wag's with the white girls. He talked about getting his gun. He said he was going to shoot them. He waited for them in the parking lot. He followed them over nine miles onto the Interstate. All that showed premeditation, he argued.
Ober looked at the jurors sitting in front of him. "You are the conscience of the community," he concluded. "I ask that you strike out at John Carter. Not out of vengeance. Out of justice."
At the defense table, Lazzara smiled to himself. "You look like the cat that swallowed the mouse," Bob Polli whispered. Once again, Bennie had hung out the bait and Ober lunged at it like a great bear. For all he had gleaned from the first trial, the big man still could not change direction on the run.
In the hallway, Gilder walked away in disgust, his face tight, his eyes red. "Where is this black community demanding a conviction or there'll be a riot?" he demanded. He had dissuaded other blacks from coming to court or staging public rallies and demonstrations. He had held passions in check. He had agreed to drop the death penalty, as had the Raines family. Yet Lazzara raised the specter of black hordes screaming for vengeance, and urged an all-white jury to stand up against the threat.
"What Bennie told those people," said Gilder, "was that you're going to vote white or black."
No one wanted vengeance, he insisted. Only a sharp, clear message that the county's judges and jurors would no longer tolerate attacks against black citizens.
Burden of Proof
Late Saturday afternoon, the jurors took their first vote. Five wanted first degree, seven favored second.
Bill Byrnes, the jury foreman, backed second. A short, bluff Irishman now retired as a third-generation industrial plumber, he saw Carter as a punk kid who didn't know what he was doing. "John looked like a kid who didn't give a damn and just wanted a thrill," he told us. "Not that he meant to kill anybody. He was just a boy having some fun."
Ober didn't make me see premeditated at all, said Mitzi Freeberg, a student of gerontology at the University of South Florida and a former Marine Corps drill instructor.
Wendy Giesy thought the same. A trim, athletic woman, with long, straight blonde hair and a stern expression, Giesy had a masters in biology and worked for the Florida Department of Transportation. Watching her in the courtroom, June Carter felt she looked like "a German ice princess."
Of those who voted first, Charlotte Anderson seemed the strongest. A young housewife and school bus driver, she felt that Carter knew what he was doing.
Panagiotis Choundas, an immigrant Greek sea captain who now ran a sandwich shop, agreed. From the circumstantial evidence alone - the remarks, the waiting, the chase, and the gun - it seemed obvious to him that Carter had meant to do what he did.
But how did they know that Carter had it in his mind to kill, the others asked. How did they know he was not just trying to scare them?
As they talked, Helen Jackson wavered. A retired nurse in her sixties and recently widowed, she had voted for first - mostly out of sympathy with her black friends. But she doubted the proof of premeditation. "Ober promised us evidence and testimony he did not deliver," she said. "He oversold."
Alice Woods, a lunchroom assistant in the public schools, also felt doubts. That left three votes for first - Anderson, Choundas, and Angie Maldonado, a Puerto Rican woman who had lived in East Harlem.
"We'll be here all night," complained Byrnes, the foreman. "And if we get a hung jury, this guy's gonna walk off free. How many times can they try him? The state hasn't got that much money." Byrnes was talking nonsense and knew it. But he scared Maldonado, who saw John Carter as a personal threat.
"I don't want this man out," she pleaded. "He will kill my children."
"Wait a second!" Byrnes raised his voice. "He's not going to bother your kids. He's not a mad man. He's just a boy who made a bad mistake."
Byrnes continued to bully Maldonado. Others tried to push her more gently. She seemed shaken and upset. Finally, she could take no more. "I'm not stupid!" she blurted out.
Finally, she gave in. Feeling frustrated by her poor command of English, Maldonado saw no way to convince the others.
Wendy Giesy took Choundas aside. Tell me why you're for first, she said. Convince me, and I'll change my vote. Choundas recognized her method. Demosthenes, the Greek philosopher, had used it thousands of years before. But Giesy sounded as if she really wanted to vote for first - if only he could convince her beyond a reasonable doubt.
Everyone talked at once. Anderson could not accept that Carter intended only to scare the blacks. Not when he announced he was going to shoot them. But shoot did not mean kill, the others insisted. Did she want to see a dictionary? I know the difference, she snapped.
Hadn't Charlotte ever been so mad she'd said, "I'm going to shoot you?" someone asked.
Sure, said Anderson. I've said that to my husband, but not with a gun in my hand.
Hoping to find new evidence to win the others over, Anderson pushed to hear testimony from two of the witnesses, Mark Cheek and Steven Harpster. The clerk began reading at 7 p.m.
"Cheek was really wishy-washy," Anderson thought. But even in her skepticism, she heard what she had not caught before - that even before Cheek made his plea bargain, he told the police that Carter said he was going to shoot them.
At 9 p.m., Judge Alvarez sent the jurors back to their deliberations, holding off dinner to keep them under pressure. If they failed to reach a verdict that night, they would have to start again on Monday.
Back in the jury room, everyone looked tired from the long week. The count remained ten to two for second degree, with Anderson and Choundas holding out.
"I'm gonna knock on the door and tell 'em we've got a hung jury," Byrnes announced. He rose to his feet.
"Wait a second," said Choundas. "We haven't talked it out yet."
"Gotcha!" Byrnes smiled to himself.
To Choundas, the battle seemed lost. He had fought to win Wendy Giesy to first degree. He had tried to show her how even without Cheek's testimony, Carter's actions proved that he had it in his mind to kill. She would not see it. She would not cut through her doubts. So why keep fighting, he wondered. Was there really that much difference between first degree and second?
A light sentence might send the wrong signal, he told himself. But to whom? Those who needed to be stopped from murder were not the ones who heard such messages. The social problems ran too deep. No one would take responsibility. Americans - look at his fellow-jurors - wanted the easy way. Okay, he said. I'll vote for second,
Anderson stuck with first, a little Cracker girl fighting alone. She had grown up in the South and remembered her grandfather as a bigot who believed the blacks wanted to take over the world. But she never thought that much about the color of a person's skin. Nor had she seen or felt any of the pressure from the blacks that Lazzara had warned against.
"I didn't know what he was talking about," she said. In her common sense mind, the issue at stake was simple. Did Carter know what he was doing? And did he mean to do it? She had no doubt he did.
Anderson felt exhausted. It was after 10 p.m., and they still had not stopped for dinner. Should she hang the jury? Choundas and Maldonado would probably stick with her. But the state would only have to spend more of the taxpayers' money to try Carter again.
The others kept battering away. I guess what we're asking you to do is trust our decision, one of them urged.
Okay, she answered at last. I'm not going to fight all of you.
Byrnes, the foreman, smiled with satisfaction. They had reached a verdict, even though three of the jurors - Choundas, Maldonado, and Anderson - never really accepted it. "I know they're still for first," he told us. "They only did it to not have a hung jury."
Byrnes thought back to Mrs. Benjamin, the black woman Lazzara had kicked off the jury. Had she remained, he was sure she would have held out. "Mrs. Benjamin was a lot more intelligent than she made you think," he said. "There was no way you were going to convince her of anything."
Wendy Giesy, the ice princess, stood alone with her head down sobbing bitterly. You know, I think it's first, too, she told the others. But it was just not proven to me. I have a doubt. We can't go by what we feel, she said. We have to go by the law.
Later, one of the bailiffs invited the jurors for a drink. Choundas had a Greek wine. Byrnes took a seven and seven. It was the first drop he had touched in a year. "It tasted real good," he smiled.
The bailiffs applauded the verdict. They would have voted for second. Carter was a punk, one of them said. Them niggers would take care of him when he got to prison. He did not think much of Carter's victims either, or of the girls they were with. It was, he said, two whores, two pimps, two punks.
Byrnes had his own doubts about the two white girls, he confided. And about Wayne. "What the hell was this guy doing with a white girl when he's married," he wondered. "Not that it had any bearing on the case."
"How about if those two guys were white and the two girls black?" he asked himself. "What would my reaction be to that? To shooting a white man?"
"I've thought about it," he admitted. "I don't know. It might have been something else."
Charlotte Anderson thought so too. "If it had been a black man shooting a white guy, it would've come out differently," she said. "I can't say how others would feel, but I feel the tables would've been turned a little bit more. They would've been more angry about it."
Johnny Let's Go
"When I first saw you, I didn't like you a bit," Johnny told us. "I thought you were just being nosy sons of bitches, trying to dig in and make a really outrageous story out of this."
He had changed his attitude about a lot of things, he said. "And I'd rather you got to know me as I really am - not what you've read or heard about me from other people. You might as well get my side of the story."
Johnny talked to Anna and me over several months, first at the stockade where the county kept him during the trials, then at an out-of-state penitentiary where, for his safety, he spent most of the seven years and one month he ended up serving for second degree murder.
As we pushed and prodded, Johnny talked about himself as he never had before, not even to his jury consultant Ray Doyle, who worked with him as a psychotherapist. He also let us tape our conversations. With his life hanging in limbo, he saw little reason to hold back. He also told his family and friends to talk to us and gave us written permission to see the revealing reports from the psychologists and psychiatrists who were not allowed to testify.
What emerged was a picture of John Carter that the jurors in his two trials never got to see. Personally, we found him surprisingly forthright, fairly bright, and funny in an offbeat way. He was also unashamedly racist, full of rage, and violently destructive of himself and others.
He'd been building to that night for a long time, he told us. Sometimes he wanted to kill his brother Billy. Or his mom. At one time or another, he wanted to kill every member of his family, friends, even total strangers. He warned those he loved to steer clear. "If I ever get pissed off, leave me alone," he told them. "Don't bug me or I'm liable to do something to you."
"If I could just sit and relax, everything would be cool," he said. "But when people kept bugging me, kept bringing it up, and wouldn't leave me alone, picking at it, picking at it ..."
During one conversation, Johnny told us about "spraying," a game he and his friends liked to play.
"When there was nothing much to do we'd go out and party," he recalled. "We would pick up some BBs and some Freon and go spraying." They used a freon-powered "Combat BB Gun" that fired sixty rounds a second.
One time they were driving by a local beach with some friends, when he spotted a group of blacks lying around a fire. Johnny stopped the car and fired the BBs into the hot coals. "They were all over the place, and all of a sudden this black guy jumps up and shouts, 'What the hell was that?' It freaked him out."
As he made his getaway, he reached across the passenger's seat and fired a parting volley at two black couples by a picnic table. "They moved like a swarm of bees," Johnny giggled in a high-pitched voice. "It was funny. You could hear them. We just drove on by."
Johnny's favorite targets were the down-and-outs by the seedier black bars. "We'd see a guy sitting against the side of a wall," he told us. "He sure does look tired. Whew! Spray 'em in the ass. They get up pretty quick for old guys. Sometimes we'd go round the block and pass the bar again. We'd see them all grouped around talking about it and we'd hit 'em again. People would cuss and shake fists," he said. "We'd shout, 'Hey!' They'd all turn around. 'Spray 'em!'"
"We never seriously tried to hurt anybody. Just sprayed 'em with lead in the ass. Most of the bums were black," he said. "You've never seen anybody run unless you've seen a black guy that's scared. He can really move."
Even more revealing, Johnny mentioned a small, grungy bar in the midst of a public housing project, close to the spot on the Interstate where he killed Wayne Raines. He had driven there one night with a friend to buy marijuana. He remembered three or four blacks standing out front. A large, powerful man walked to Johnny's side of the car and leaned in the window.
"I don't want it," said Johnny, nodding toward his friend. "He does."
The black man pressed forward into the car, pushing Johnny back, using his strength to tell him, "You're gonna stay right there, and I'm gonna do what I want."
He dreamed about the same bar, he told us. Only in his dream, he went back with an army. Carefully, they planned their attack. They studied the local map, brought walkie-talkies and radios, posted lookouts on every corner to watch for witnesses or cops. "It's a go!" came the signal. Five or six trucks roared through the darkened streets. Leading the way in his pick-up, Johnny screeched to a halt in front of the bar.
The big black man walked toward him. Johnny lifted his twenty-gauge shotgun. "Where do you want it?" he shouted. He squeezed the trigger. Blam! The buckshot - or was it a slug? - tore the man in half.
From the back of his pick-up, his squad of men threw off the tarp that hid them and began shooting at every black in sight. More blacks poured out of the bar, firing as they ran. Johnny's men responded with blistering gunfire and gasoline bombs. In two minutes, they wiped out the blacks.
"Go!" blared the radio. "It's done."
Later, Johnny and his friends regrouped. But the gunmen in the back of his truck had gone. Who were they? Johnny never knew.
Night after night in his cell, he relived the same dream. Sometimes he fired into the bar with a twenty-two rifle. More often he shot only the big black who had made him feel like a punk. The random slaughter he left to the faceless killers he conjured up in his mind.
What did it mean, he asked us. Was he going to war? Was he taking revenge? And for what?
Before the second trial, he told Bob Polli about his dream. Polli had never known Johnny to talk that way, and heard only the threat of racial violence, not the plea for help.
"I felt like someone hit me in the face with a shovel," Polli told us. "All the blood ran out of my face."
What were he and Lazzara doing? The kid was going crazy, he told himself. How could they let him back on the streets?
In his mind, Johnny replayed the night at Wag's as it was, and as it would never be. Yet no matter how he played it, he never found the answer he needed. Why did he do it?
Was it racial, as the media made it sound? Johnny seemed confused. He had no interest in the Ku Klux Klan or other hate groups. "I can do my disliking on my own," he grinned. But dislike he did. "I'm not too hip on interracials," he told us. "There's something about it I just don't like. I don't know how to explain it. It's like asking, 'Why don't you like faggots?'"
To Johnny, the mixing was wrong. But he did not generally go around making remarks or hassling interracial couples, he said. Not even when he was drunk. "It didn't make no difference to me."
Other times, like the night at Wag's, anything could set him off. "I don't think racial had anything to do with it," he insisted. "It didn't make no difference who it was. I was just being a prick - picking on anybody I could."
But why had he killed the man? Bennie blamed it on the beer. Johnny needed more. He needed to come to grips with his rage.
"I can just feel it," he told us. "It just takes something to bring it out. Something kicks in my head, and I turn into one mean, nasty son of a bitch."
He had the anger from the time he was a little boy, his sister Nita told us. One moment he could be sweet, sensitive, eager to help; the next he was grunting with rage, his anger welling up in his throat until he could no longer choke it down.
Often, he used it against himself. When he was thirteen, she found him stretched out on the bed with a shotgun, the barrel at his throat, his toe on the trigger. On his arms were several recent scars where he cut himself with his knife - because he deserved it, he told his former girlfriend Sissy.
He also used his rage against others. "It's my natural way of fighting," he explained. "It pushes me past the limit to where I don't think what I do. I don't think I could live without it. I'd be a pussy. A wimp. A coward."
"When he gets mad, he gets that look on his face," said another friend. "It's really a scary feeling. You don't want to try and stop him."
Johnny had tried to find ways to control the feelings. Quitting school at fifteen, he went to live with his dad in the country, where he had space to be alone, free of the city's pressure. But his anger would not let up. What he needed, he felt, was to hold it down with rules, laws, a rigid code, which he saw as the old country ways. "Be straightforward and frank with people. Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't do nobody wrong unless they do you wrong. And if they do, give them right back their own medicine."
Except when he was alone with a girl, he tried to stop smoking marijuana. He tried to cut down his drinking. He even changed his taste in music. He had loved Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd; then came the switch. "Suddenly he wasn't going to like rock music anymore," Sissy recalled. "He was always changing my car radio to country music."
One of his new favorites was Hank Williams, Jr., singing "Country Boys Can Survive."
He was killed by a man with a switch-blade knife,
For forty-three dollars my friend lost his life.
Well, I'd like to spit some beechnut in that dude's eyes,
And shoot him with my old forty-five.
Hearing in the lyrics a coded call to kill black killers, and knowing his own urge to kill, Johnny tried hard to harness it. He would never kill, he decided, unless he had to. But he knew his chance would come. Day and night, he never dropped his guard. Danger lurked around every corner. Someone was always trying to get him, or Sissy, or one of their friends. Johnny could hardly wait for them to try.
"I always knew if I had to kill, I wouldn't hesitate," he said.
But why black people, we pushed.
It was mostly their fault, he figured. After Hillsborough County desegregated the schools, the black kids ganged up on him, picked on him, tried to take his lunch money, he said. They beat him up. They put him down in front of his friends, calling him "faggot" because of his long blond hair.
"My dislike of blacks was literally beat into me," said Johnny. "They did a pretty good job."
His friends disagreed. David Hughes had suffered his own bad experiences. One of his eyes drooped: that was where a black kid hit him in the head with a length of pipe, he told us. Afterward he carried a chain and bayonet to school to protect himself. But in all those years, he never heard Johnny talk about any problems with blacks.
Andy Rocha remembered Johnny fighting in the locker room against a black named Spiderman, but never saw the blacks pick on Johnny, and never heard Johnny talk much about blacks when he was still in school.
"Johnny always had a tendency to stretch the truth a little bit," said Andy. "He probably believes it now."
Johnny's intense hatred for blacks came later, about the time he gave up on rock and roll. Seeing himself as a hard-assed country boy, he took on the most aggressive and outspoken racist attitudes, far more strident than anything he had expressed before.
"I wasn't surprised Johnny killed a black," said Andy. "Since he got out of school, he just despised them."
David had seen it too. The weeks before the shooting, Johnny and he stopped at a small store in Port Tampa, where they saw a white girl with a black man. Johnny gave the black a dirty look. "I bet your father's proud of you," he said to the girl. When Johnny got back in the truck, he saw the black man waiting in the van next to him. Without a word, the black rolled down his window and pointed a MAC 10 automatic pistol at him. Then he drove off, leaving Johnny feeling impotent.
Only Johnny's mother seemed surprised by his racial feelings. The daughter of a prominent Cracker family from the southeastern edge of the county, June had tried hard to give up the country ways, especially when it came to race. Working with black children, their parents, and black co-workers, she tried never to use certain words, June told us, not even about a former boss she despised. And she always corrected Johnny whenever he said "nigger this" or "nigger that."
Against Johnny's racism and rage, June's speech code was at best irrelevant. A serious response needed to go much deeper. In any case, Johnny never believed her. "She puts up a front that she carries to work and brings home with her," he told us. "But I don't think she likes 'em."
Less than two weeks before he killed Wayne Raines, Johnny went to a party near the University of South Florida. He stayed several hours, drinking himself into oblivion. One of his friends dared him to cut himself. Johnny made three large slices across his arm. Then he painted his face with blood.
Johnny spotted a towering black man - a pro football player with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his friends assumed. Johnny made rude remarks, which the man ignored. A few minutes later, his friends saw Johnny aiming his three-fifty-seven Magnum at the black man. He had the gun cocked.
"Put it away!" one of his friends shouted, diving for cover.
No one remembers how long it took, but at last Johnny put down the gun. He had the man right in his sights, he laughed.
Even at the time, Johnny knew he was slipping over the edge. His rage increased. His "crank bugs" bit more often. He hypered out. He went berserk, picking fights, pulling his knife, drawing his guns. "I was awfully tempted quite a few times to zap some people," Johnny told us.
"He was ready," Andy agreed. "I'm not sure, but I think he always wanted to feel the sensation of killing somebody."
Seeing Michael and Wayne with white girls eased the way. If he could no longer hold back his rage, how much safer to lash out at strangers who were black than at his mother, brother, or Sissy. Blacks were not people like us, he told us. Who better to use for a target? So many people shared his prejudice. So many shared his hate. So many cheered him on.
He talked with Cheek about shooting them, blasting them, blowing them away, he told us. He followed them. As drunk as he was, he told one of the shrinks, he carefully waited for his chance and planned his escape, a proof of premeditation that never came out in court.
Ahead he saw the exit sign and made his move. Reaching for his forty-four Magnum, he stepped on the gas, pulled alongside the speeding car, and looked down at his prey. Time stretched out. The roar of the engine stilled. He had been building to this moment for years. Even as he tried to choke it down, hold it back, keep it under control, his rage drove him to it. At last he could let himself go.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech
Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman
lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer
and television producer. He now lives and works in France,
where he writes for t r u t h o u