By Joe Beck
Christopher Garrit Johnson walked out of Shenandoah County Circuit Court on Tuesday a free man after a judge dismissed an unusually tumultuous disorderly conduct case against him in the middle of a one-day jury trial.
Johnson, 34, of Strasburg, was charged Dec. 19, 2012, days after a mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, had rocked the nation. Johnson and his attorneys insisted he had broken no law when he walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Strasburg with a 2-by-4 board bearing the words, "high powered rifle" on both sides. Sandy Hook Elementary School has the same name as the Connecticut school in which a gunman killed 26 students and educators before killing himself.
Defense attorney David Silek argued that his client did not violate any provisions of the state's disorderly conduct statute. Silek contended Johnson was exercising the constitutionally protected right to free expression when he carried the board into the school.
Silek said his co-counsel in the case, Carlos Flores Laboy, made a motion to strike the prosecution's evidence after several hours of testimony Tuesday. The motion led to Lane's ruling scrapping the case against Johnson.
Silek hailed the outcome of the case in remarks after the trial.
"Today, the right given to the American citizen of trial by jury and the right to say, 'I want my peers to judge me,' prevailed," Silek said. "Today is a good day for people to address their government for grievances about the job it is not doing.
"And the most important thing is because of my client, finally, Shenandoah County schools woke up to reality, and the children of Shenandoah County are safer today because of my client."
Silek said he was referring to an increased number of school resource officers and other security measures taken in the aftermath of the attention given to Johnson's actions at the school. Johnson's mother works as a teacher's aide at Sandy Hook.
"Because he said, 'I want my mother to be safe in school, I want these children to be safe today,' today, they are safer," Silek said.
Silek said his client's efforts to highlight school safety issues came at a heavy price. Johnson lost his job at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., faced hospital bills from a mental health evaluation after his arrest and suffered "ridicule" and "embarrassment," Silek said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org