Death of a young detainee
The federal court trial of Antwan Lenard Johnson appeared to be a clash of narratives between a handful of former juvenile delinquents and one of the officers who guarded them. In the end, jurors believed the guard.
Twelve jurors in Miami’s Wilkie D. Ferguson U.S. Courthouse found Johnson, a former detention officer at Miami’s long-troubled juvenile lockup, innocent of two charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of a 17-year-old detainee. Elord Revolte died in August 2015 after a mob of fellow detainees beat him savagely — at the behest of Johnson, prosecutors said.
Jurors deliberated for about 20 hours over four days before arriving at their verdict.
With Johnson’s acquittal, Elord’s death will remain unpunished. The dozen or more youths who beat Elord that evening never were charged. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle declined to prosecute Johnson, as well, for allegedly setting up the attack. And Johnson’s acquittal Tuesday likely closes the final chapter of the tragedy.
Johnson hugged and high-fived his defense lawyers, family members and supporters as he walked out of the federal courtroom a free man just after noon Tuesday.
“I just want to say I was innocent from Day One,” Johnson told the Miami Herald after the verdict was delivered by the jury. “I just want to say, ‘Thank God.’ “
Johnson’s mother, who attended the two-week trial and stood vigil with other supporters since the jury began deliberations July 18, said her son was wrongly blamed for Elord’s death at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
“I feel my son was used as a scapegoat, and I thank God the truth has prevailed,” Janie Major told the Herald. “They put him through misery, and it affected the entire family.”
Close to two dozen supporters — including at least one former colleague — rallied around Johnson throughout the 10-day trial, at turns praying and chanting in a courthouse cafeteria. Johnson, 36, who was facing up to life in prison if convicted, was represented by lawyers Hector Dopico and Helaine Batoff with the Federal Public Defender’s Office.
A representative of the state Department of Juvenile Justice monitored the hearing from start to finish, an agency spokeswoman said.
Only Elord Revolte was unrepresented. None of the deceased teen’s family members attended the trial.
Elord’s death sparked a two-year investigation by the Miami Herald, Fight Club, that detailed the widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force, rampant sexual misconduct, medical neglect and sometimes squalid conditions within the state’s lockups and programs for delinquent youth — many of whom, juvenile justice administrators say, suffer from mental illness or addiction.
Among the series’ findings: Department of Juvenile Justice administrators long had tolerated an unofficial, yet widely used, form of control, often called “honey-bunning.” Under the scheme, officers would designate usually older and stronger youths to be enforcers. The goons would be paid in vending-machine pastries, or other treats, to administer discipline that officers were reluctant to mete out themselves.
If Johnson was on trial at the federal courthouse, so was honey-bunning.
Testimony from former detainees formed the backbone of the prosecution’s case. The four youths’ stories, and that of at least one officer who remains at the detention center, painted a picture of a lockup where discipline, in the form of violent corporal punishment, was essentially outsourced to other youth. The now-young adults said officers deployed snacks — including Snickers bars, Hot Cheetos chips, Big Texas cinnamon rolls, Oreos and Twix bars — to incentivize kids to beat each other.
Senior officer Tekeiki Taylor noted that at the time of Elord’s death, a juvenile told her that a sergeant at the facility had “put a cheeseburger on a kid’s head,” so she did not feel comfortable taking her concerns to her direct supervisors. Testimony from a former detainee at the facility implicated the same sergeant of offering food for fights.
Taylor stated that weeks before Elord’s death, she spoke with Major Daryl Wolf and a facility captain for 40 minutes, saying they should “look in the back” — in the cellblock — to see if rumors of officer bribes were true. “They didn’t believe me,” Taylor added.
“My concerns wasn’t dealt with,” Taylor said. “They didn’t do nothing.“
If administrators did make changes, they appear to be confined within the officers’ vending machine: Taylor told jurors that the iconic honey buns on sale within the vending machine were removed.
“It was in the newspaper, about the honey buns, so they didn’t let us have those no more,” said Taylor.
DJJ administrators told the Herald the agency does not tolerate abuse of the youth in its custody — by officers or by other teens.
“Staff were ... given a clear directive that victimization of our youth will not be tolerated and that if abuse occurs, they will be held fully accountable for their actions, including termination and up to criminal prosecution,” said agency spokeswoman Amanda Slama.
“The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s primary focus is ensuring the safety and security of all youth in our care. The Department does not tolerate or condone the mistreatment of children in our care. It is our expectation that any staff who jeopardize the safety of youth be held fully accountable for their actions, including dismissal and criminal prosecution,” she added.
In an email to the Herald, Slama did not identify any steps DJJ took to prevent another tragedy similar to what befell Elord.
DJJ continued to employ Johnson until he was arrested by the FBI as he arrived at work in April 2018— two and a half years after Elord’s death.
And, when confronted with a host of agency records that detailed the practice, administrators insisted that there was no evidence that bounties and honey-bunnings were anything but rare, isolated incidents.
Steve Bronson, who directly supervises officers and who responded to Elord’s attack, said that in his career, he has heard of officers putting snacks on kids, but declined to provide further information. Bronson acknowledged that he is facing pressure from current employees at the Miami-Dade detention center over his testimony during Johnson’s trial.
“I’ve heard of it in privately run facilities,” said Keven Housel, DJJ’s south region director. Housel added that he also heard rumors of bounties at a lockup in Orlando during the 1980s, but never in Miami-Dade.
The former detainees, however, implicated themselves in the scheme.
One of the youths, Giovanni Guadalupe, described what happened in the lockup the night Elord was attacked. He said the youth squabbled with Johnson over a second carton of milk. Elord rose from his seat to get some; Johnson became angry when Elord got up without permission, and then cursed at the officer.
“Y’all boys gonna eat good,” Johnson told the attackers, according to Guadalupe. Witnesses said that, under lockup culture, the first boy to strike Elord was entitled to a treat. “I call that,” he said he heard some of the detainees say.
As one of the attackers, “I was expecting something, for later. Something to eat. Like a honey bun,” Guadalupe added.
An investigation into honey-bunning by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge Johnson, but noted that “the number of claimants and the similar nature of their claims seems to suggest that some JDC staff members likely engaged in the practice of offering honey buns or other food as a reward to youth detainees to carry out physical attacks.”
A separate investigation by DJJ resulted in the firing of five officers and a smattering of write-ups for poor performance among others.