Monday, 18 September 2023 06:40

Mississippi Goddam Chapter 7: Reasonable Doubt

Billey Joe Johnson Jr. Credit: Courtesy of the Johnson family

New revelations cast doubt on the official story that Billey Joe Johnson accidentally killed himself.

The final episode of Mississippi Goddam shares new revelations that cast doubt on the official story that Billey Joe Johnson Jr. accidentally killed himself.

Our reporting brought up questions that the original investigation never looked into. Host Al Letson and reporter Jonathan Jones go back to Mississippi to interview the key people in the investigation, including Johnson’s ex-girlfriend – the first recorded interview she’s ever done with a media outlet. The team also shares its findings with lead investigator Joel Wallace and the medical examiner who looked into the case.

Finally, after three years of reporting, we share what we’ve learned with Johnson’s family and talk to them about the inadequacy of the investigation and reasons to reopen the case.

This episode was originally broadcast in December 2021.

Photos

Reveal host Al Letson holds a microphone as he interviews a member of the Johnson family. Reporter Jonathan Jones is seen in the foreground listening.
Al Letson (right) and Jonathan Jones (left) interview relatives of Billey Joe Johnson, including brother Eddie (center). Credit: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
Reveal host Al Letson and reporter Jonathan Jones talk with members of the Johnson family, who stand around the family’s car.
Al Letson (second from left, with microphone) and Jonathan Jones (right) interview members of Billey Joe Johnson Jr.’s family. From left are Tiffanie, India and Billey Joe Sr. Credit: Imani Khayyam for Reveal

Dig Deeper

Listen: The whole Mississippi Goddam series

Explore: Dig into the case files and documents about the death of Billey Joe Johnson.

Credits

Reporters and producers: Al Letson and Jonathan Jones | Series editor and executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Series producer: Michael I Schiller | Series digital editor: Nina Martin | Series assistant producer: Steven Rascón | Series production manager: Amy Mostafa | Series digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Fact checker: Rosemarie Ho | Reporting and producing help: Ko Bragg, Michael Montgomery, Laurel Hennen Vigil and Melissa Lewis | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Claire Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Kathryn Styer Martinez | General counsel: D. Victoria Baranetsky | Special thanks: Katharine Mieszkowski, Alexis Hightower and Jen Chien, and to the Johnson family for entrusting Reveal with their story

Mama Blue sang our theme song throughout the series. For this episode, we ran an original version, written and performed by Nina Simone. Thanks to the Nina Simone estate and Music and Strategy.

Series photos by Imani Khayyam. Logo design by Joan Wong.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. With me today, my beloved former colleague, Alexis Hightower, and together we’re going to tell a story that starts in 1944, in Tryon, North Carolina.
Alexis Hightowe…: 11 year old Eunice Kathleen Wayman sits on a bench. She’s so small. Preparing to play the piano to the big audience, watching in the town hall. It’s a big deal in a town like Tryon that a classical piano prodigy lives among them, while not really among the white people, but still. Her parents are the only black people allowed in the audience. They’re sitting in the front row. Before she can touch the keys, she senses something wrong. She looks out into the audience and sees a white couple trying to take her parents’ seats. This was the way of life in Tryon and little black girls should know their place but not Eunice. She turns to the crowd and says she won’t play unless her parents can stay in their seats. Annoyed, the white couple finds some seats in the back, and Eunice sits at the bench and plays. Someone comments, charming girl, but what nerve. They have no idea.
Al Letson: Three years later, and several states over, Medgar Wiley Evers and his brother Charles, stand on the steps of the courthouse in Decatur, Mississippi. They’re staring down a group of 20 or so white men with rifles, shotguns, and pistols. The mob is blocking their way to the voting booth and Medgar has known this feeling before, when the air crackles with the threat of violence. He’s been to war fighting against the Nazis in Europe, but he stands there, watching the white man blocking his way. You see, beyond an education in violence, Europe taught him something else. How a man can stand upright, be respected, regardless of his skin color. One of the white men tells them to go home or things will turn deadly. The sheriff just watches. Right then, Medgar knows he and his brother could die. He decides not today. He looks to his brother, come on Charlie, let’s go. We’ll get them next time. Damn straight.
Alexis Hightowe…: 1954, Atlantic City, bright lights, a boardwalk and crowds coming to have a good time, but Eunice Waymon is worried. The young piano prodigy is 21 now, and she’s here to make some money, playing at the Midtown Bar. The owner tells her she can’t just play the piano, she’s got to sing. Oh, no. Eunice never sings in public. She just plays the piano, and if her devout mother finds out she’s playing in a place of sin, she would have a fit. She’s ready to leave, but Eunice needs the money so she decides to reinvent herself, and become who she is supposed to be, complete with a new name. The next day, Eunice sits down at the piano in the smoky bar. The air conditioner drips on the stool, but she doesn’t care. She just closes her eyes and plays like she’s in Carnegie Hall. She opens her mouth and sings. In that moment, on that night, right there at that piano, Nina Simone is born, and the world will know her name.
Al Letson: Medgar Evers gets active in the fight for civil rights. He becomes the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, and in 1955, he investigates cases like Reverend George Lee and Emmett Till.
Alexis Hightowe…: Meanwhile, Nina Simone breaks big in ’59 with I Loves You, Porgy. 1963.
Al Letson: 1963, and the struggle for civil rights is a blaze.
Alexis Hightowe…: And Medgar and Nina are in the middle of it. Nina becomes friends with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Lorraine teaches her what it means to be black, the joy, the struggle, the movement, and her role as an artist in it all.
Al Letson: Medgar’s life is constantly under threat, but he won’t stop. Sit-ins, boycotts, speeches. But on June 12th 1963, just a bit after midnight, Medgar is walking to his front door, and a gunshot rings out. Hit in the back, Medgar Wiley Evers, son of Mississippi, veteran of World War II, tireless advocate of civil rights, dies less than an hour later.
Alexis Hightowe…: Three months later in Alabama, four little black girls are killed in a church bombing. Nina Simone is heartbroken. All the ideas Lorraine Hansberry has seeded, begin to bear fruit, and she writes her first protest song. It flows out of her like the mighty Mississippi River. It’s righteous anger demands to be heard. She thinks about Medgar and those four little girls, as she takes the stage, this time in Carnegie Hall. She sits at the piano and says…
Nina Simone: The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam, and I mean every word of it.
Al Letson: This is the rebroadcast of Reveals serial investigation, Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe. Episode seven, reasonable doubts.
Over the last six episodes, we’ve tried to understand what happened to Billey Joe in an effort to help his family find some peace. We’ve looked at this case from every angle, but it all goes back to December 8th 2008 when Billey Joe was pulled over on a cold early morning by sheriff’s deputy Joe Sullivan in Lucedale, Mississippi. Deputy Sullivan says that no one was in the parking lot besides the two of them, but four people told police they were driving by the scene that morning. One was a middle school janitor who saw Billey Joe outside his truck and saw the police cruiser, but not the officer. The next two were father and son who were out hunting early that morning. They saw Billey’s body on the ground and the officer in his car. The lead investigator, Joel Wallace, interviewed those witnesses three days after Billey Joe died. Then 19 days after the shooting…
Joel Wallace: Today is the 27th of December.
Al Letson: Joel interviews a man named Clay Herndon.
Joel Wallace: Tell me about certain incidences that occurred on the 8th day of December 2008.
Clay Herndon: Me and my boy had went to the emergency room.
Al Letson: Herndon says he was driving home from the ER when he saw Sullivan chase Billey Joe’s truck. Not long after that he says he drove by the traffic stop and by that point, Billey Joe had gotten out of his truck.
Clay Herndon: Appearing to me that he had had his license or a wallet or something in his hand. And as I passed, keep in mind that I’m still talking to my wife on the phone.
Al Letson: After he passes by, Clay says he looks in his rear view mirror and sees Sullivan step out of his car.
Clay Herndon: They were both standing face to face, appeared to me that the officer was speaking with Mr. Billey Joe.
Al Letson: When Clay gets home a minute and a half later he says his wife calls and asks him to grab some food. So he heads back out. And he says from a distance it appears that there was somebody reaching into the truck.
Clay Herndon: His back toward me at a distance. There’s a good straight of a stretch, approximately two or three tenths of a mile, maybe further, but of course in the dark and with the lights going, it just appeared to me… It’s hard to say that it was clarity, but it appeared to me that I seen somebody standing in the door of the truck.
Al Letson: By the time he travels three tenths of a mile or so, he says that person is no longer standing.
Clay Herndon: There was a body laying on the ground and the officer was in his vehicle, was in his patrol car.
Al Letson: In other words, Billey Joe is dead and Sullivan is in his car. Each of the four witnesses back up key details of deputy Sullivan’s account, though none of them saw or even heard the gunshot, but how much weight should we give to these statements?
Richard Wise: Really understanding the nature of human memory is the key to understanding how eyewitness error occurs.
Al Letson: Richard Wise is a former prosecutor. He’s now a forensic psychologist. He says, when interviewing eyewitnesses, you have to try to get as much information as possible and take into account what was happening when the person saw the incident, were they distracted, did they have a clear line of vision?
Richard Wise: Mr. Herndon mentioned that he was fatigued, so that probably impaired his ability to accurately recall the details of the crime. He also had divided attention. He was on the cell phone with his wife, so he was alternating his attention between those three things, between the road, talking to his wife, and viewing the crime scene. Another problem that came out is I noticed that part of the time that Mr. Herndon viewed the crime scene was in the rear view mirror, which would actually create additional problems. That’s not the best way, obviously the viewer crime scene.
Al Letson: He says the other witnesses were good distance away from the scene too. He also points out that Clay Herndon wasn’t interviewed for 19 days and during that time something Clay heard or read about the case could have affected his memory.
Richard Wise: One of the rules is you want to interview an eyewitness as soon as they’re emotionally and physically capable of being interviewed and the circumstances of the investigation permit. And the reason for that is something called the forgetting curve.
Al Letson: Wise says the forgetting curve shows that people start to lose key details right away. Putting on your prosecutor’s hat, would you be comfortable with these eyewitnesses?
Richard Wise: No. I would’ve wanted more information.
Al Letson: Wise told me he’s not qualified to judge whether the witnesses are credible or not, but he says as a former prosecutor, he wouldn’t have put a lot of weight into these statements because there’s a possibility that they recall things inaccurately.
When investigators arrived at the scene, they started documenting it. There are hundreds of photographs of the truck, the parking lot, the gun, and of course Billey Joe. We had a crime scene expert review them. He said what he saw in the photos doesn’t seem to line up with what the grand jury found, that Billey Joe had accidentally shot himself. Instead, he says it’s more likely that the gun was in Billey Joe’s mouth and that brings us to the shotgun itself. One used shell had been found in the chamber. The Mississippi crime lab did some testing and found a small amount of blood but not enough to test and no clear fingerprints, not even Billey Joe’s. On the whole, the gun seemed surprisingly clean. The crime lab started to test how the gun fired but reported it broke before they could finish. This seems like a big deal. How could the grand jury determine that the gun was accidentally fired if the crime lab didn’t finish testing it? We’re ready over here.
Speaker 8: Firing.
Al Letson: We fixed the gun for just $238. It’s a Sears Roebuck model 200 pump action 12 gauge shotgun. Billey Joe’s dad had held onto it all these years. We asked him to ship it to Scranton, Pennsylvania. And in September, JJ and I flew there to meet with Pete [inaudible 00:13:50], a forensic firearms expert. Now the grand jury believed that Billey Joe was moving the weapon and the trigger caught on something and went off. Pete tested the weapon and said it would take a significant amount of pressure on the trigger for that to happen. So it’s possible but maybe not probable. In its report the Justice Department said the manner of death was suicide, so we wanted to know could Billey Joe have reached the trigger and killed himself with this shotgun?
Pete: Our estimation and by our, I mean in consultation with an anthropologist, is that the arm length is insufficient to reach that trigger, which is a considerable distance away from the muzzle. It’s a 28 inch long barrel, which is one of the longer barrels in the world of shotguns, and that presents a challenge to reach that trigger location at the same time as having this unpleasant thing in your mouth and it is a challenge with that gun anyway you look at it, that trigger is far away from the muzzle.
Al Letson: Billey Joe’s arm length is undocumented in the case files or in the autopsy, but according to estimates, Pete says it would be extremely difficult for Billey Joe to pull the trigger.
Dr. Adele Lewis the medical examiner who performed the autopsy was adamant that the shotgun was not in Billey Joe’s mouth. She believed the buckshot hit the outside of his head and her testimony helped lead the grand jury to declare that Billey Joe’s death was accidental. The Department of Justice and the experts we consulted with disagree with her and said the barrel was in his mouth. When we spoke to Dr. Lewis in 2020, she seemed to be willing to consider other points of view.
Dr. Adele Lewis: I’d be happy to go back and reconsider it and look at the photographs again and reconsider it that way. Sure, the case is never closed.
Al Letson: So we reached out to see if she’d taken another look. Her response was brief but remarkable. Reviewing the case now she writes, and considering the opinions of the other experts consulted, I agree that this most likely was an intra-oral shotgun wound, intra-oral. So she completely changed her mind. This is a lot to take in. We have a gun expert saying it’s unlikely Billey Joe could have killed himself with the shotgun, but not impossible. His family, friends and coaches all said he did not appear suicidal. The only people who said he threatened to kill himself were Billey Joe’s former girlfriend, Hannah Hollinghead and her mother, Esther Parker. Next up I finally interview Hannah Hollinghead.
Hannah Hollingh…: It all started at the fair that year. I went to the fair. He came to the fair. We had an altercation at the fair.
Al Letson: This is Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Ever since I heard about the death of Billey Joe Johnson, his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hollinghead has come up a lot. Both JJ and I have talked to Hannah over the phone, but she never agreed to a recorded interview with us or anyone else, until now. So we’re recording all of this now. So let’s kind of just take it from the top. We talked over Zoom, so in places it’s a little glitchy. She’s understandably nervous.
Hannah Hollingh…: I’ve been scarred for life because of this whole thing. That’s why I stayed quiet so long because I don’t lay down at night without having to take medicine to help me sleep because that’s all I think about, the pure hell I’ve had to go through for almost 13 years.
Al Letson: Hannah sits up straight looking into the camera. She’s dressed simply in a red T-shirt. She has long dirty blonde hair with the same smile I saw on her 10th grade prom picture with Billey Joe. We settle in and she tells me about the first time they met.
Hannah Hollingh…: I remember coming home after I met him, he was just this little country, well, he wasn’t little but this country guy. I told my dad, I was like, dad, I’ve met this guy. His name is Billey and he plays football. And he was like, well, good, just be careful. You know how people talk. And I said, oh, yes sir, nothing like that.
Al Letson: So the people that we’ve spoken to have told us that your dad didn’t like Billey Joe, but they would say that primarily they didn’t think your dad liked him because of his race.
Hannah Hollingh…: My mom didn’t care for Billey. My dad doesn’t care. My dad doesn’t see color. It really makes me angry that those same people that are talking about my dad being racist because it’s all over the internet. My dad’s side of the family, over half of them are biracial. We don’t see color in my family period, but we are talking about 2008. Things were different, but my dad’s never seen color ever. My mom did not care for that because the first encounter she ever had about me and him was that we got into an argument at school, that came from one of the campus police. If my parents were so racist… This is my husband.
Al Letson: At this point in the interview, Hannah’s husband comes into the screen.
Speaker 27: How’s it going?
Al Letson: Good.
Hannah Hollingh…: They would’ve never let me marry a black man. I was in a relationship at the time of his death with another black guy.
Al Letson: In her second interview with police, Hannah told them that Billey Joe would hurt her, that he had thrown her against the lockers in school.
Hannah Hollingh…: It all started at the fair that year. I went to the fair. He came to the fair. We had an altercation at the fair. I didn’t even bother with it. The same police from the school informed my mom there was an issue. My mom called me, asked me did it happen. I said, yes, it happened, but it’s fine. Let it go. Well then the last thing I heard, my mom and dad were both in front of the fair up by the gate and they were talking about he needed to stop putting his hands on me.
Al Letson: When you say an altercation, can you just tell me what happened?
Hannah Hollingh…: Well, we argued he… I’m not telling you what happened, but we had an argument. He did grab me, but I was used to that. That’s just… I was used to that. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t think anybody seen it. I was with my best friend.
Al Letson: So that happened and then fast-forward, apparently Billey Joe called your mother and Billey says to her that, according to your mom, says to her that Hannah’s not always right and she didn’t understand what’s going on. And then your mom said to him like, listen, if you hurt my daughter, something’s going to be done.
Hannah Hollingh…: I guess I didn’t know about the phone call, but every time something happened, my mom wanted to get a no contact thing on him where we couldn’t speak at all. I wouldn’t say like a restraining order, but a no contact. I didn’t know about the phone call or if I did, I forgot. I don’t know about that. He did sling me against the wall by the chemistry rooms. I don’t like talking about that because I don’t like remembering him that way.
Al Letson: I understand.
Hannah Hollingh…: He had problems. We tried to work through those. A lot of people ignored his problems because of who he was. So I try not to remember him that way. I only want to remember the good and I honestly, all I want is to find out what really happened. The issue really is from the time he ran that red light and the police encountered him, that’s the whole issue. That investigation right there from that time he ran the red light on is the issue.
Al Letson: I totally hear you on saying it matters what happened after he ran that red light. But I think part of the issue is that so many questions were not asked about what was going on before he ran that red light and that frames if he did kill himself, then we need to ask all of those questions and understand exactly what was going on in his life. So you’re shaking your head no. Why are you shaking your head no?
Hannah Hollingh…: Nothing will ever, even if the case is opened back up… When they came the first time and said it was a suicide, I told them, no, that is not right. No one has ever, and no one will ever convince me that he killed himself.
Al Letson: Let me tell you something that I think you probably don’t know. So the grand jury says that it was accidental. So we had a medical examiner look at it and the medical examiner basically said that what the autopsy said was wrong, that it was what they call intra-oral, meaning that the gun was in his mouth and if the gun was in his mouth, it’s pretty hard to make a mistake. You don’t mistakenly put a gun in your mouth. So either like he did it himself or someone else did it to him. The other part of it, and this is the thing that I don’t think you know, but the Department of Justice came in and the Department of Justice did a review and looked at everything. They said it was probably suicide and part of the reason why they said it was suicide was because of the testimony that your mother and you gave to the police officers. But the way you and your mother characterized Billey Joe in the day before his death seems like you were saying that he was suicidal.
Speaker 12: Well, the only thing that I can, just by sitting here listening to her, that I see that she’s leaving out is the fact that the Thursday afternoon prior to this happening, a statement was made in the barbershop where all these kids get their hair cut is that it’s going to end and I’m going to take Hannah with me.
Speaker 13: So are you implying that Billey made a statement?
Speaker 12: Billey made this statement in the barbershop Thursday afternoon prior to the 8th.
Speaker 14: Would it have been other high school students that he made this comment to?
Hannah Hollingh…: Yeah, they were high school students.
Speaker 14: Were they football players?
Al Letson: That tape is what the DOJ listened to and what they kind of took away from it was that he was suicidal. So that’s one part of it. The other part of it though is that through our investigation we had to go through and interview and ask all these people that were supposedly at the barbershop and all of them to a person said that they never said that.
Hannah Hollingh…: I don’t expect them to tell the real story of how our relationship was. Those were his friends.
Al Letson: I know this is hard and I’m sorry I have to ask you these hard questions, but his family has not known what has happened to him and so when we go through the case files, we’re just trying to get to the bottom of it.
Hannah Hollingh…: And I want them to get justice, but he didn’t kill himself. I don’t care what anybody says.
Al Letson: Do you understand though, when you make that statement to the police that Billey Joe says these things that that is a frame of reference when the investigators are looking at it and they’re questioning whether he was suicidal? So you’re very strong in saying that you do not believe that Billey Joe would kill himself, but at the same time you’re telling me that Billey Joe was threatening to kill both you and him.
Hannah Hollingh…: Because at that time I was 17 years old. I don’t know how the law works. He did stuff like that because he just wanted attention. I don’t want to remember him that way.
Al Letson: I understand.
Hannah Hollingh…: I know you have to ask me these questions, but I don’t want to remember Billey that way and I know we have to talk about it, but it’s hard because this is why I get the blame of being the racist white girl when I was really the only one that was trying to help him. I never got closure because I don’t know what he wanted that morning. Billey needed something that morning. Everybody deserves… He deserves justice. His family deserves justice. And honestly, I deserve some closure because I don’t know what happened. My gut and my heart always has said that Billey did not kill himself.
Al Letson: Next, a final interview with the lead investigator, Joel Wallace, and we share with the Johnson family everything we found. This is Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
When we first met lead investigator Joel Wallace in 2019, I had no idea what to expect. He’s a former cop and we were digging into one of the most important cases of his career. For him, it had to be nerve wracking and yet he talked to us for hours. We got to know him pretty well. He seems like a man of integrity, but our reporting turned up several failures in the investigation and we had to talk to him one last time. Jonathan Jones and I met up with him in Mississippi. We talked to an expert who looks at police investigations and it was like there were two types of investigations. There’s the investigation that looks at specifically like what happened and everything surrounding it, and that is a very narrow investigation. And he was saying that now that time has gone on, people are demanding that police do bigger investigations that stretch outward. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that you were doing a case that was really narrow in focus as far as what happened that day.
Joel Wallace: Right, law enforcement terms, it was no probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that anything else was involved besides those two that were there at that scene, and basically I interviewed the folks based upon the information that the DA’s office gave me.
Al Letson: But I would just say that the case was so narrow in focus, like if you had spread out and talked to more people that maybe people wouldn’t feel like they had been left out of the process because the family feels like they were completely left out of the process. A lot of people in the black community that we talked to would say that they had information and nobody ever called them and talked to them about it.
Joel Wallace: Well, I know this. When I first arrived on scene, the first thing I did, I went down and introduced myself to the family and I’m not defending myself. I’m saying introduce myself to the family, told them who I was, investigating, and I came to investigate this case and that based upon my past reputation, I will give them the facts and circumstances to the case to the best of my ability as far as investigating it. The mother and the father, and I also told them I was sorry for their loss. I have never done that in any other case, that’s what I did.
Al Letson: I would say that a huge part of the issue with this case…
Joel Wallace: Is lack of communication with the family and with the black community. I understand that now. Hindsight it’s 2020. I understand that. If I had this information, if I had thought that before, that it would lead to somebody, maybe I would have.
Al Letson: I know going back and looking at something that happened 10 years ago is hard. I get it. There’s a moment in the interview with Hannah and Hannah’s mother where they make these allegations of Billey Joe threatening murder suicide. You were skeptical of it. You asked her point-blank, how would you know this? And as far as we can tell, nobody, not you, not Scott McElrath and the other investigator ever looked into her allegations, so we did. She said that they were in a barbershop and in the barbershop, Billey Joe said all these things and four or five people were there. So we talked to all of them, including the barber, and every single one says that she’s lying.
Joel Wallace: I’m going to say maybe I didn’t feel she was credible because I was responsible for myself. I don’t know. I can’t say why. I don’t know why I didn’t go to the barbershop and talk to the other people. I really don’t know.
Al Letson: One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot when it comes to Joel Wallace is some of my own experiences. When I was younger, I worked at some places where racism was an issue, but I couldn’t bring it up. In typical Gen X fashion I figured out workarounds because I knew if I said anything, I’d be told I was using the race card or I’d be that guy and shut out. In the investigation into Billey Joe’s death, race rarely comes up. They only officially interviewed one black person, but it’s clear race is all over this case. I asked Joel Wallace what he thinks the DA’s office would’ve done if he had brought it up. How do you feel if you had brought that up in the room, do you think that Scott McElrath would’ve…
Joel Wallace: Man, they would’ve got somebody else to work that case and they would’ve got somebody else and I probably wouldn’t even be where I was at. I mean, if I said something like that.
Al Letson: You can’t bring up race.
Joel Wallace: No. I mean you don’t have that liberal freedom.
Al Letson: If you could go back and tell the Joel Wallace of 2008…
Joel Wallace: Interview every… I mean everybody in George County, if you had to.
Al Letson: This is where JJ brings up that Billey Joe’s friends say police pulled him over dozens of times before he died.
JJ: If you wanted to interview his best friends or people on the football team to find out whether he had been targeted by the cops, for example, could you have done it if you wanted to or did you have to go through the DA to do it?
Joel Wallace: If someone had informed me that his best friend or football players or somebody has information pertaining to the police officers or officers involved trying to hurt this guy or hurt this kid or had been harassing this kid, I would’ve found out from the DA’s office where these people live because I’m not from there. But I wouldn’t have just arbitrarily went out… If nobody came forward to me and said, hey, I played ball with this guy, man, we was riding around in the car and we was playing music, or every time we ride around, this officer stops us and they always ask to check our car. I would’ve loved if somebody had done that and came to me and told me that.
JJ: But reporters did. Reporters who were there found that out.
Joel Wallace: Who? What reporters?
JJ: Reporters who went… Like the Yahoo sports guy, spent two days on the ground, the color of change people found that out. The NAACP people found that.
Joel Wallace: No, but wait a minute, but wait, when did they find that out?
JJ: While you were investigating the case.
Joel Wallace: Well, nobody never told me that.
JJ: I know, but isn’t…
Joel Wallace: If nobody… The Yahoo sports or whoever or whatever, something about a case when they’re not investigated, they’re not the law authority. I told Mr. And Mrs. Johnson when I got there, I said, hey, I’m here to investigate, to find out the truth. Guess what? They got a responsibility to come to me and say, hey, you not looking at this. You didn’t follow this up. This is what I got right here, dude. Nobody done that to me, man. And [inaudible 00:35:25], nobody. If they had, I guarantee you…
JJ: No, and it is…
Joel Wallace: It’s about the case. It’s about that kid laying on the ground dead that I saw that day, okay, that I got to live with. Now I got to go through you 10, 15 years down the road. I got to come back and live something that looks like, but it’s not, but apparently presumed or seen as if I didn’t do my job. I only did what I was led to and what I was told to. They got a responsibility just like I did. NAACP, Yahoo Sports or whoever had information could have contact me at any time.
JJ: Right. People don’t want to go to the cops. They don’t trust the cops.
Joel Wallace: That’s what makes me so unique. The whole Gulf Coast, the article I carried in my wallet until a couple of months ago showed you that the community said in the paper that they waiting to find out the truth because this guy here… That’s what made me Joel Wallace. That other investigators were jealous of that I had that nature about me. I just want justice period. It ain’t even got to be for the Johnson family. If I was bamboozled, given, fed some information that wasn’t true or hoodwinked about something, I like to know that before I die because them folks, if they had that information, man, it ain’t about you. It ain’t about Al, ain’t about nobody else. They should have came and contacted me. They should have found out who this guy Joel Wallace is and contacted me and nobody did.
Al Letson: Our final stop is a meeting with the Johnson family. The first time JJ and I met with them was in March 2018. They were hesitant. I was nervous. And none of us were sure where this would lead. Since then, we’ve come back to visit the family pretty often. I haven’t been apprehensive to talk to them since that first meeting. They’ve always been kind and as helpful as they can be, but during our last visit, I was nervous. They trusted us with their case files and now we’re going to finally lay out everything we found. We pull up to a family member’s front yard on a windy fall day. Mr. Johnson, Billey Joe’s older sister Tiffany, his older brother Eddie, and his little sister India are all there. They huddle around us as the wind blows and cars drive by on the country road behind us, and JJ and I explain our work.
What we have done is we went through the case files that you all got from the lawyer. We had experts look at it. We listened to all the audio. We interviewed as many people as we possibly could, and we put this together to kind of walk you through it. Back in 2008, kind of the way police were being trained to do investigations was this very narrow focused. The investigation was flawed because it was too narrowly focused. Investigators mostly talked to people who interacted with Billey Joe the morning of his death, so they only look at the events of the day, which means they never talk to you guys. Officer Sullivan is related to a district attorney. It’s his sister-in-law.
JJ: A district attorney, and specifically his two investigators, they were bringing the eyewitnesses to Joel.
Al Letson: And we have several of his friends who have said that Billey Joe was getting pulled over a lot. They have interviewed clips with Hannah and her mother, and basically what they say is that Billey Joe threatened to kill Hannah and to kill himself. Everybody to a person said that didn’t happen.
As we’re talking to the family, I can feel it all settling on them. They’re mostly silent, but you can see it in their body language. They look away from us, give deep sighs at times. Billey Joe Sr kind of wanders away, still close, but distant at the same time. And the DOJ says it was a probable suicide. They listened to Hannah and Hannah’s mother. They went with the idea that because he was a black male or black boy, he was more likely to kill himself, which we talked to a psychiatrist and she was just like, you absolutely cannot say that.
JJ: When you have a suspicious death like this, you’re supposed to talk to his friends. You’re supposed to talk to his family.
Al Letson: Our pathologist looking at it saying the shot was intra-oral, meaning it was in his mouth. The grand jury got it wrong. We didn’t find out what the Johnson’s really wanted to know, what happened to Billey Joe on that December morning, but what we have found has called the entire investigation into question. Joel Wallace, the lead investigator, has already told us the case should be reopened. The medical examiner changed her opinion of how Billey Joe died. The grand jury came to its decision after her testimony. That’s justification enough to reopen the case.
The former district attorney, Tony Lawrence, is now a judge on the Mississippi Court of Appeals. The current DA Angel McElrath is married to one of the men who initially investigated the case. Now we’ve reached out to both of them to share everything we have found and neither of them will talk to us. They are the ones with the power to open a new case and to answer all the questions our investigation has uncovered.
Throughout this series, we have seen how Mississippi’s past haunts the present. It’s the burden of history that many of these officials can walk away from, but the Johnson’s cannot. It’s all connected. In order for justice to be served, we have to acknowledge the past and follow the facts where they lead.
After three years of being deep in this story, we have to tell the Johnson’s for now, our work has come to a close. Things can pop up and if they pop up, if more information comes to the surface, we’ll be back to work that. It’s not like, okay, the story’s done, we’re out, but this is the wrap up of the major part of the investigation. Do you guys have any questions? Anything you want to talk through? Whatever. We’re here.
Speaker 17: I’m good right now.
Al Letson: You okay?
Speaker 18: Yeah, I’m good.
Al Letson: You all right?
Speaker 19: Yeah, I’m good. I just feel like a family shouldn’t go through so much when you have so much evidence, when you have so much, but it’s just where you live with the people that don’t want to just stand up and be what’s real, what’s right. It’s just not… Shouldn’t go through it. Nobody really cares until it hits home, until they have to face it and go through it. I don’t understand. It’s going on 14 years and I’m tired. I’m tired. Justice is what we need. That’s what we fighting for.
Al Letson: She’s right, and honestly, I don’t know what else to say. All right. Well, I guess we going to head back to Mobile and you guys are going to meet us for dinner.
Speaker 19: I suppose. I’m just tired. I’m done because I’ll be crying in a minute, so I don’t want to [inaudible 00:43:20], going to get very upset. So I’m good.
Al Letson: It is a strange departure, not like I’m used to with the Johnson’s. Tiffany would usually be teasing me. India, who in the time that we’ve been working on this story has grown up. She’s a mother now. Normally she’d give me a hug and Eddie would give me a pound, but today we all just kind of drift away. This wasn’t an official goodbye. I knew I’d see them at dinner that night, so JJ and I just got in our car and drove away. I don’t know how you felt, but that really sucked. It sucked because I just felt like all their hearts were breaking. We were breaking their hearts all over again, not… I don’t know what I expected this to feel like, but not this.
JJ: It does make you think, I mean, I don’t know that it’s helpful to think about was it worth it? It just is. We’ve done it. We did it. We decided…
Al Letson: No, it was definitely worth it. It was worth it. It’s just like, do you remember when we had that conversation and you were like… God, man, I’m sorry. You wanted people to have some kind of hope, and I told you that I wanted to make people angry, and I do. I stand by that statement, but I think what I was trying to do with this is give the Johnson’s some hope, and I don’t think we did. I don’t know. It just breaks my heart. But what I’m saying JJ is that I’m you now and you are me.
JJ: I want to make them angry. No, it’s sad. It is sad. I mean, they all matter. Their experiences and their loss and their belief that justice failed. It matters and it matters even more because it seems like nobody else seemed to really think that it mattered here or not enough people.
Al Letson: Yeah. When I found this story in 2011, I tried really hard to get a news organization to take it on. I’d made that promise, but the truth is I was hoping someone else would fulfill it for me. But years passed and no one picked it up. And in that time I had all these excuses of why I couldn’t go back to Mississippi and look into it. But the truth is, I was scared, not of the police or reporting in Mississippi. I wasn’t sure I could carry the weight.
See, being a black journalist and telling stories like this, it takes a lot from you. It reignites old trauma. It stays with you long after the workday is done, and it will never be the neat Hollywood ending we all long for. But then I joined an organization with the investigative muscle to do it, and I knew that if I didn’t tell this story, no one would. So I took a deep breath and dove in. In the years since, there have been two times that I’ve had to stop and take a break, just breathe. The first was when George Floyd died. It was an intense week. If you remember, Breonna Taylor was killed a few months before. The video of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery had just been released, and then George Floyd. And for me, it’s not just seeing another black person killed violently. It’s also the debate of that person and by extension, black people’s humanity, it was too much. And so I set the story down for a week.
The second time was almost a year later when officer Chauvin was being tried for killing George Floyd. 10 miles away from that courthouse, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old black man was killed by officer Kim Potter. The video, like all these types of videos was bad, but what took my breath away was Daunte’s picture. He looks so much like my youngest son and it shattered me. I couldn’t get his image out of my head. I tried to keep my son close to me that week, like I could protect him, but the truth is I can’t. And that’s what stories like these remind me of. Not just of my own mortality, but of my children’s as well. So I pulled away from the series for a few days and reset, but the Johnson’s couldn’t. They have to live with this day in and day out. We don’t know what happened to Billey Joe, but given the history of this country, of Mississippi, the way his family was treated, the lack of thorough investigation, of course, they feel the trauma of every death that reminds them of Billey’s and their story is not an outlier.
The last time we were with the Johnson’s, we took the family out to dinner. Tiffany and her family, India, her boyfriend and baby, Billey Joe Sr and brother Eddie. JJ and I and our photographer, Imani, were all together at a restaurant in Mobile. Earlier that day, things felt hard, but this night all of that tension was gone. I left my gear at home. Tiffany was tired of me putting a mic in her face, so we just came to have a good time, no agenda.
I realized that there was something that JJ and I missed in our time with the Johnson’s, joy. See, every time we’re with them, we’re talking about the case and Billey Joe’s death. But that night we just ate and laughed and it was so clear how much this family loves each other. Billey Joe Sr and Eddie pass India’s baby around playing with him while India leaned into her boyfriend watching. And I have never seen Billey Joe Sr smile so big and wide and free, and it hit me that all this time I’ve been trying to give them hope, but it was never mine to give. They already had it.
Like millions of Mississippians throughout time their hope is born when their babies open their eyes for the first time and look up, and their parents dream of a future where they can live and thrive. History holds no weight in that moment. They defy gravity until tragedy brings them down, and even then, it can’t hold them for long because living, loving and laughter is an act of resistance, resilience, and hope. And while Billey Joe Jr and his mother, Annette are gone, the Johnson’s do their best to move forward. At the end of the night, Tiffany gave me a hug and thanked me and JJ for everything we’d done for the family. And I felt after 10 years of holding it so tight that the promise I gave was fulfilled.
I want to give a huge thanks to the Johnson family for entrusting us with this story and everyone at Reveal for supporting us on this series for the past three years. Our show was reported and produced by Jonathan Jones and me and edited by Kevin Sullivan. Michael I Schiller is a series producer. Steven Rascon is the assistant producer, Alaa Mostafa, the production manager, and Nina Martin, the digital editor for the series. We had additional reporting and producing help from Ko Bragg, Melissa Lewis, Michael Montgomery and Laurel Hennen Vigil.
Thanks to Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski, and thanks to former Revealers Jen Chien, who helped launch the project; Esther Kaplan; Christa Scharfenberg; Sumi Aggarwal; and Sarah Mirk. Special thanks to Alexis Hightower, who provided vocals at the top of the show. Mama Blue sang our theme song throughout the series. Today, we ran an original version, written and performed by Nina Simone, thanks to her estate and Music and Strategy. Our fact checker is Rosemarie Ho. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production managers are the wonder twins, Zulema Cobb, and Steven, my brother from another mother, Rascon. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Arruda. They had help from Claire Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Helman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

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