Baltimore mother reaches grand jury, capping lonely battle to prosecute police in son’s death

Madeleine O'Neill//September 4, 2022

Baltimore mother reaches grand jury, capping lonely battle to prosecute police in son’s death

By Madeleine O'Neill

//September 4, 2022

Marcella Holloman stands beside a picture of her son, Maurice Johnson, who was fatally shot by police in 2012. (The Daily Record/Madeleine O’Neill)

Sitting in her living room in Northeast Baltimore, Marcella Holloman can point to the exact spot where Baltimore police shot and killed her son 10 years ago.

A photograph of her son looks out over the living room, which in recent weeks has transformed into something besides the scene of a deadly shooting: the headquarters of Holloman’s legal battle to hold the officers accountable in court.

A laundry basket next to the couch holds a jumble of legal documents she’s compiled over the past decade.

Holloman’s last-ditch effort to have the officers prosecuted culminated last week in Baltimore Circuit Court. Relying on a little-known aspect of common law, Holloman assembled 100 pages of records to present to the grand jury on her own — a right afforded to every citizen of Maryland, though few people know about it.

It took years for court officials to honor that right years that Holloman spent pushing against the weight of a legal system that was built for lawyers, not for regular citizens like her.

“I’m so tired and so drained, not from me doing it physically, running around, but just the mental part of it,” Holloman said. “(To) keep filing papers on top of filing papers, and knowing it’s going to come back and be rejected for no apparent reason.”

In the end, submitting the papers to the grand jury was easy. Holloman and a friend went to the courthouse on Wednesday and handed a thick envelope to a court officer.

Now, all Holloman can do is wait. She has had plenty of practice.

* * *

Some details of what happened to Maurice Johnson, Holloman’s son, on May 19, 2012, are disputed or unclear. Others are not.

Johnson, 31, was unarmed and in the midst of a mental health crisis when Holloman called the police for help getting him to a hospital that day.

Holloman declined to discuss the shooting in detail for this story because she feared jeopardizing the grand jury proceedings, which take place in secret.

She has described what happened several times in court documents over the years, however. In a 2014 federal lawsuit, Holloman said that Johnson arrived at her house on Elmora Avenue, where he also lived, during a birthday party for her 6-year-old granddaughter.

He began destroying furniture in his bedroom. When confronted, Johnson said he wouldn’t leave. His behavior kept escalating. Holloman decided to have the children at the birthday party get into a nearby car for their own safety. She called the police and requested help getting Johnson to a hospital.

Holloman says that when the first officer arrived, she asked him to wait for backup because Johnson had moved to the backyard where he was locked outside and had calmed down. Instead, the officer, Paul Markowski, brushed past her into the house, according to Holloman, and headed toward the back door.

A second officer, Gregory Bragg, soon arrived and the two opened the back door together. Holloman says they grabbed Johnson, who began to struggle with the officers and fell to the floor with Markowski. Johnson got on top of Markowski on the floor.

The officers have said in court documents that Johnson went for Markowski’s service weapon. Holloman says that didn’t happen. Other details are also muddled: in some court records, Holloman has claimed that both officers shot Johnson, while other filings indicate that only Bragg fired his weapon.

The precise details of the shooting are unclear in part because the city and the two officers have offered little information about what happened in response to Holloman’s court filings. A Baltimore Police Department spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Even Holloman has, at times, offered differing versions of what happened. In a statement to police immediately after the shooting, she said that she let the officers into her home and that Johnson lunged at them when they opened the back door.

Holloman now says she was in shock during that interview and didn’t yet know that Johnson had died.

Despite these lingering questions, Holloman and her allies say the bigger problem is a system that sends police officers to handle a behavioral health crisis. Holloman still doesn’t understand why the officers used deadly force to subdue a man who was mentally ill.

Johnson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2009. Holloman says police should have known that because they’d had previous interactions with him, including one time when he was found jumping on top of cars naked and wound up in a psychiatric ward. On one occasion, Holloman had called police to her house for help handling Johnson because he threw a vase at her.

In September 2012, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Bragg, finding that the officer acted in self-defense when he shot Johnson.

A federal judge agreed in 2015, after Holloman filed her pro se civil lawsuit over the shooting.

“The court is very sympathetic to Ms. Holloman, who has suffered a tragic loss,” U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake wrote when she granted summary judgment in favor of the officers. “This case illustrates the difficult choices facing both family members and law enforcement officers in dealing with individuals exhibiting violent behavior perhaps because of mental illness. The officers’ use of deadly force, however, was objectively reasonable under the circumstances they confronted.”

* * *

Holloman forged ahead on her own, still seeking to have the officers prosecuted. She asked repeatedly to approach the grand jury in Baltimore Circuit Court but was rebuffed.

In 2016, Holloman again asked to bring the case before the grand jury. The judge overseeing the grand jury replied that the jurors had declined to investigate the case. Holloman learned two years later that no documents or other materials had been submitted to the grand jury in support of her position.

“They don’t want you to fight for yourself,” Holloman said. “The more I heard no, the more I was determined that I was going to get a yes.”

Holloman has largely pursued her case on her own, or with informal legal help, though she has at times received pro bono assistance from lawyers.

She tried again in 2019. This time, the court file on Johnson’s shooting was sent to the grand jury, which again declined to investigate. But Holloman kept trying. In October, the Court of Special Appeals ruled that she had a common law right to compile her own set of documents for the grand jury to consider.

Grand juries typically hear from prosecutors and decide whether to bring charges based on the evidence presented. Holloman’s request is nearly unprecedented, though, and could put the legal system in an unusual position.

“It’s asking the grand jury to go back to the way it was originally conceived, which was that it had an investigative charge,” said Amy Dillard, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

“In my experience, the grand jury process is pretty much rubber-stamping,” Dillard said. “It’s interesting to think about how this can disrupt that process, because I would assume that (Holloman) might present things to the grand jury that the prosecutor normally wouldn’t in a police shooting case.” 

Holloman faces an uphill battle. Police are generally considered to have acted lawfully if they acted reasonably under the circumstances, Dillard said. That means officers don’t have to respond in an ideal way, or in the least confrontational way possible, in order to have legal protection.

But Holloman’s legal fight is also about a broader question, said Lauren Young, the former director of litigation for Disability Rights Maryland. Should law enforcement be the first responders when someone is having a behavioral health crisis, which is essentially a medical emergency?

“How do we make changes not to get here again?” Young asked. “I had no idea that we had ways for our citizens to call out some of this wrongdoing, and (Marcella) figured it out. Not only did she figure it out, she’s spent over nine years now trying to get there and to show us all that this is something the community has power in.”

Young and Holloman met when they were both advocating for a more humane response to people in mental health crisis, and have become friends since then. Young also helped Holloman prepare documents for the grand jury.

“I just can’t say enough about the strength of folks who pursue what they think is right and keep doing that in the face of so many barriers,” Young said. “It also makes me feel ashamed of how many barriers we’ve put in the way.”

Holloman still cries when she talks about her son. He was planning to move to Las Vegas, where he hoped to get a job as a cook and find a wife.

Holloman will never have a mother-son dance at Johnson’s wedding. She will never see what his children would have looked like. And every day, she wakes up in the house where he died.

“I shouldn’t have to live in a constant reminder,” she said. “I already live there on a mental level. I shouldn’t have to live there on a physical level as well.”

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