The mother of Howard Johnson, a 24-year-old Black man killed after an apparent exchange of gunfire with a St. Paul police officer last December, is suing to expedite the police investigation and obtain additional evidence while Johnson's body remains in the county morgue.
Monique Johnson's May 18 lawsuit against St. Paul, Ramsey County and Minnesota claims that she is entitled to footage and investigative files of Johnson's shooting by Sgt. Cody Blanshan because state law grants such evidence to crime victims and their family. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which investigated the shooting, turned those files over to the Ramsey County Attorney's Office in February, but the prosecutor's office denied Monique Johnson's request, saying that it still is investigating the shooting.
Kenneth Manning, Johnson's stepfather, said they want to expedite the process because they have been unable to put Johnson to rest. The family plans to cremate Johnson. A BCA spokesperson, Bonney Bowman, said the county attorney asked the county medical examiner to hold the body "in an effort to preserve evidence" while the case is reviewed.
"Howard's [body] has been sitting in the morgue rotting while they do what investigations?" Manning asked. "Well, where is the fruit of their labor, what is their final determination and why is it taking so long to be made available to his mother? These are the things we'd like to know and we'd like to know them like yesterday."
The family could bury Johnson's body if they choose not to cremate, but Bowman said the BCA has no role in releasing him. That decision lies with the county attorney and the medical examiner.
"We do not release the video until the case is closed and fully adjudicated. Once that happens and before the case file is made public, we do invite the family to sit down with the case agent and go through the complete case file with them, including the video," Bowman said. "Until that time, the family could request additional video from St. Paul police. It would be that department's decision whether to share additional footage."
In a statement, the Ramsey County Attorney spokesperson, Dennis Gerhardstein, said the case remains under prosecutorial review by the office.
"Moreover, there is a pending civil lawsuit brought against Ramsey County and others related to this same matter," he said. "For these reasons, we are not presently able to provide you with any additional comment."
Johnson died Dec. 5 after police responded to a domestic violence call in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood. The caller said Johnson was armed. In a video released by police days after the shooting, Blanshan, a 10-year veteran with the department, is seen arriving on the scene to radio that Johnson was trying to carjack someone at gunpoint. Blanshan accelerated his squad car and knocked Johnson to the ground, then Johnson got up and appears to point a gun over his left shoulder as he turns away.
Blanshan yelled "Don't do it!" before at least 10 gunshots can be heard in the nearly four-minute-long video clip, and Johnson drops to the ground with what appears to be a gun at his side. That clip shows a muzzle flash from the weapon before Johnson falls.
The police union said the shooting was justified, and St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry said the released video speaks for itself. But Paul Bosman, chief counsel for Communities United Against Police Brutality, said Johnson's family wants closure.
Bosman, who is representing Monique Johnson in the lawsuit, has pursued similar cases for families who he says are often in "suspended agony" waiting for authorities to finish their investigation.
"It's very, very difficult for people who have been in these situations to, A) find out what the heck happened to their loved ones and B) if they believe that their loved one was killed wrongly, to get any kind of justice for them," Bosman said, adding that families and community members cannot properly grieve when investigations are prolonged.
"There's a saying among doctors that every neurosurgeon has a cemetery in their mind. … That list gets longer for everyone in the community that's trying to make sure that we hold police accountable and that we find the truth for the families."
More than 220 officer-involved shootings have occurred in Minnesota since 2000. At least 30 have been in St. Paul. One shooting caught the attention of Attorney General Keith Ellison, who announced he would help review the police shooting of Yia Xiong, a 65-year-old Hmong man who was killed moments after police responded to 911 calls about him.
Legislation passed this year may make it easier for families to obtain body camera footage of police shootings, and Bosman says that may help them process their grief.
For Kenneth Manning and the rest of Johnson's family, bringing his case to a close is vital to ensuring others are treated equally as well.
"We're doing our best to guard and do our due diligence to make sure everything is done right by Howard, done right by his mother and the rest of his family, doing right by all the citizens of Minnesota and St. Paul and Minneapolis," Manning said. "That's all we're trying to do at the end of the day."