Four years after a gang of detainees from Miami-Dade’s juvenile lockup beat a 17-year-old to death, exposing shameful conditions within Florida’s troubled juvenile justice system, a crucial question remains: Were the kids put up to it?
That’s the question confronting a 12-member federal court jury as it weighs the fate of Antwan Lenard Johnson, a former Miami detention officer who is charged with planning the attack that took the life of Elord Revolte in August 2015. The beating was captured on surveillance video.
“If you pay careful attention to our witnesses,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean McLaughlin, “you will have no problem convicting him of these crimes. No problem at all.”
Johnson, who had worked as a juvenile detention officer for eight years, was charged with two counts: conspiracy to violate Elord’s civil rights, and deprivation of Elord’s civil rights, by ordering the beating that killed him.
Elord had been in the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center for only three days when he and Johnson confronted each other in the lockup’s cafeteria, records show. Elord rose from his seat without asking Johnson for permission. Johnson told the teen to return to his seat. Elord cursed at the officer, telling him to “f--- off,” prosecutors say.
Prosecutors say Johnson, unwilling or unable to dispense discipline himself, did the next best thing: He ordered the other detainees in Module 9 to beat him up, instead.
Elord died at Jackson Memorial Hospital at 11:17 p.m. on Aug. 31. An autopsy concluded he died from a tear to a vein under his left shoulder, which slowly oozed blood until he stopped breathing.
Federal agents arrested Johnson last April, after a grand jury indicted him. The indictment was handed down a year after state prosecutors concluded they lacked sufficient evidence to charge Johnson with either homicide or official misconduct, and after an internal investigation by the state Department of Juvenile Justice failed to confirm allegations that Elord was the victim of a “honey bunning,” or a beating orchestrated by officers.
In October of 2017, the Miami Herald published a series of stories, called “Fight Club,” that detailed a host of abuses within facilities operated by DJJ, or by private providers under contract with the state. The improprieties included rampant unnecessary and excessive force, sexual misconduct and an unspoken disciplinary tool called “honey bunning,” in which officers deputized detainees to act as enforcers against other youths who got out of line, often rewarding them with a honey bun from the employee vending machine.
Johnson “unleashed a commonly used, illegal bounty scheme on Elord,” McLaughlin said in opening remarks to the jury. He emphasized that detention officers are not allowed to hit or discipline the juveniles in their charge, so when Elord began violating rules and mouthing off, Johnson decided “to take matters into his own hands and discipline Elord for disrespect.”
“You will hear testimony from these Mod 9 kids, especially those in the know, that they knew, as they put it, ‘exactly what time it was,’ ” McLaughlin said.
Prior to Monday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga denied a series of motions filed by prosecutors, including a motion to exclude references to Johnson’s good character from his DJJ employment records.
Altonaga’s decisions could make it more difficult for prosecutors to get a conviction. In one such decision, Altonaga forbade prosecutors to show video footage to jurors of other fights and what prosecutors claim are officer-directed beatdowns — which prosecutors claim could help them build the case for the conspiracy charge.
Johnson’s defense counsel argued that the “honey bunning” bribery system that is the crux of the federal conspiracy charge simply does not exist.
“The idea that these kids could be incentivized by a 75-cent doughnut is ridiculous,” said Hector Dopico, Johnson’s lawyer.
Dopico described the juvenile offenders in custody as “carjackers, some of which carry guns to school, some of which are rapists” who are “filled with piss and vinegar.” Dopico accused the federal government of conspiring with the witnesses to cover up the true motive behind the attack that killed Elord.
“The government knows the name of every one of those kids,” the defense counsel said. “Not one of them has been charged with a single crime. The government made a deal with them and Antwan is the scapegoat.”
Johnson, 36, faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if he is convicted of one or both of the charges.