An easy game to play: The David Black Story (part three)

NB: You will want to read the first and second installments of this series before proceeding.

When Detective Joseph Fox began investigating the murder of Chinese activist Alice Chow, virtually every element of the case had been nailed down.

Fox knew that two Black males had been beefing across the street from a Black Baptist Church.  He knew that one of these men, identified as James “June Bug” Smith, had raced away from the scene. He knew the second man had fished a handgun out of a blue Toyota and fired two shots at June Bug.  And he knew that Alice Chow caught a bullet intended for June Bug.

All he lacked was the name of the shooter.

As we have seen, Larry Johnson initially laid the crime on Darrell Haskell, a Black male dressed in military fatigues that street witnesses saw running from the scene.  But no one saw Haskell with a gun. His alibi checked out.  He had been running errands for elderly residents of the apartment building and, startled by gunfire, the military veteran had quickly exited the scene. 

So, if the shooter wasn’t Haskell, who was it?  Larry couldn’t provide a name.  But he promised that, if given a chance to work his contacts in the neighborhood, he would soon be able to steer Detective Fox in the right direction. 

But Larry Johnson was a wanted man.  Charged with a laundry list of minor crimes. He faced two counts of illegal entry, likely because he had been barred from entering the 401 K Street apartment building. Ironically, if Larry hadn’t been illegally on the premises, he wouldn’t have been able to approach the police with information.

Larry had failed to appear at two court hearings, and a bench warrant had been issued for his arrest.  So, the moment Larry stepped forward as a witness, he was sure to be arrested and shipped off to jail.

Larry came forward because he knew he was playing a strong jand. Fox realized that his theory of the crime was completely dependent on Larry Johnson’s testimony.  Lose Larry and the investigation would almost certainly land in the cold case file.

When Larry asked to be transferred from the DC Jail to a halfway house, Fox had no choice but to comply. If Larry promised to use every waking moment trying to identify the shooter, Fox promised to transfer him to Hope Village, a massive privately operated halfway house located in southeast Washington. 

Hope Village was designed for federal inmates who were serving the last six months of their sentences.  Most residents were released during the day (many were even furnished with subway fare), so they could work for a legitimate employer. The idea was that people who were employed and adapted to the rhythm of work would be less likely to re-offend. The place was not designed for people, like Larry, who were awaiting trial.

Hope Village was the only halfway house in the DC area in 1997

But Hope Village featured notoriously flexible security policies, so Joe Fox was able to get Larry Johnson placed there even though he didn’t fit the criteria.  Larry would be released every day until midnight, so long as he spent his time beating the bushes for useful information.  Larry was both a confidential informant and a jailhouse snitch. 

At first, Larry took his assignment seriously. It was the only way he could make his vharges disappear. Two or three days after the Chow homicide, Larry Johnson approached Darryl Haskell, thean who had run for cover when the fatal shot was fired. “You know the guy who killed that lady” Larry told Darrell, so “just go ahead and tell (the police).”

When Haskell insisted he hadn’t seen anyone with a gun, Larry started feeding Fox names like “Snotface,” “Little Anthony,” and Larry’s friend, Barbara Marshall.  No one had anything helpful for Fox.

So, when Detective Fox had Larry Johnson brought in for questioning on March 17th, both men were feeling desperate.  Larry had been stringing Fox along for six weeks now, tossing out one useless lead after another.

Larry understood his situation.  If he didn’t give Fox a name, the rest of the story was functionally useless.  If nothing changed it was goodbye Hope Village; hello DC Jail.   

In Fox in Socks, a classic Dr. Seuss children’s book, a smart-ass Mr. Fox tries repeatedly to get the hapless Mr. Knox to repeat a series of bizarre tongue twisters.  “I can’t blab such blibber-blubber,” Knox tells Fox, “my tongue isn’t made of rubber.”

Mr. Fox is unphased.  “Here’s an easy game to play,” he tells Knox, “Here’s an easy thing to say, ‘Who sews whose socks?  Sue sews Sue’s socks.  Who sees who sew whose new socks, sir?  You see Sue sew Sue’s new socks, sir.” 

There is on key difference between the Dr. Seuss character and the DC detective. The game the detective liked to play really was easy. Fox would feed Larry a name and ask him to repeat it back to him.  It was an easy game to play; an easy thing to say.

The detective laid two pictures on the desk in front of Larry and asked him if he could identify one of them.  One picture was June Bug, the other was a filler.

“That’s June Bug,” Larry replied.

Next, Fox laid out eight pictures of young Black males and asked Larry if he could identify anyone.  Seven pictures were fillers.  The remaining picture was David Q. Black.  Since Black and Larry had grown up in the same neighborhood, there was little chance that this would backfire.  One thing is certain, Joseph Fox introduced David Black into his own investigation. 

Fox inherited the name “Black” from an interview another detective had conducted with James “June Bug” Smith. According to Larry Johnson’s testimony, the man who fired the fatal shot was driving a small blue car, likely a Honda or a Toyota. June Bug said he knew a guy who drove a blue car. He didn’t know his real name, but his street name was “Black”.

June Bug testified to the grand jury on May 30th. David Black didn’t shoot at him on February 2nd, June Bug told the grand jury, because he hadn’t been on the 400 block of K Street that day. Moreover, the “Black” with the blue car definitely wasn’t David Black. Everybody in Sursum Corda knew David drove a red Cadillac.

The US Attorney asked June Bug if he was aware that “the government believes that it has evidence that on February 2, 1997, the target of this case, David Black, also known as Rob, shot at you approximately 1:50 p.m. in the area of the 400 block of K Street, N.W. You understand that, right?”

“I understand that,” June Bug shot back, “but that didn’t happen.”

Nobody was listening. They had their man.

Fox asked Larry if he could name the individual he had identified.  Larry explained that, in the Sursum Corda neighborhood, people go by nicknames.  

“Okay,” Fox said, “what’s his nickname?”

“Rob,” Larry said.

Then came the big question, “did you see Rob shoot at June Bug?”

“Yes,” Larry replied, “that’s the guy.”

Larry “knew” David the way you “knew” the kids in your high school who moved in different social circles. David was fifteen and Larry was 32 when Larry moved into the neighborhood seven years before the Chow homicide. As Larry admitted at trial, the two men inhabited different generations and moved in separate social circles.

Asked to describe the crime at trial, Larry repeatedly mentioned June Bug, but kept referring to the shooter as “the other individual”.  This wording was so persistent (and peculiar), that Kenneth Whitted, the Assistant US Attorney, tried to get his witness to attach a name to the shooter.

“Let me ask you this question,” Whitted said, “Mr. Johnson, did you ever at any point recognize the individual who was with June Bug?”

“The first time?” Larry asked evasively.

“At any time,” Whitted answered brusquely.

“Yes,” Larry said.

“Who was it?”

“One time, yeah?” Larry said, stalling for time.

“Who was it,” Whitted reiterated.

“The defendant,” Larry blurted out.

Whitted had no choice but to ask his witness if “the defendant” went by the nickname “Rob”. A grateful witness said “yes”.  

The same game was being played when Joe Fox had Larry Johnson hauled into his office nine months before trial.  “You’ve had six weeks to name the shooter and you’ve come up empty.  So I’m gonna give you one last chance.  I am going to show you pictures of eight men, only one of whom grew up in your neighborhood.  If you can pick him out, I will continue to help you; if you can’t, we’re done.”

Joseph Fox probably didn’t utter a syllable of that message.  He didn’t have to.  The message might as well have been chiseled into the wall behind him.

It was an easy game to play, and both men knew the rules.

Alexandra Natapoff, the leading authority of snitch testimony, offers this terse assessment of the problem:

Informants lie primarily in exchange for lenience for their own crimes, although sometimes they lie for money. In order to obtain the benefit of these lies, informants must persuade the government that their lies are true. Police and prosecutors, in turn, often do not and cannot check these lies because the snitch’s information may be all the government has.


In the Alice Chow homicide case, the official narrative was a police-generated fantasy from the drop.  At this early point in the process, no other witness had observed an argument across the street from Lilly Memorial Baptist Church.  No other witnesses had noticed the blue Toyota or spotted the shooter.  No one else saw a shooter firing at a fleeing man. 

Every single detail of this scenario was hand-fed to Larry Johnson by the police.  Police officers originated the theory that Alice Chow had been felled by a stray bullet; Larry just repeated back to the police what they were telling him. He identified June Bug as the intended victim, but that was it. The police were playing a guessing game. Larry’s job was to assure them they had it right. Whatever they said, Larry offered confirmation.

It was an easy thing to say; an easy game to play. His reward was spending his nights in a halfway house ins

Everyone realized that Larry had serious credibility problems, but witness reliability was for the jury to assess.  If twelve jurors found the testimony credible enough to sustain a conviction, problem solved!

But studies of juror psychology have repeatedly concluded that jurors have a hard time evaluating the credibility of witnesses like Larry Johnson.  One study found that “Prosecutors bolster jailhouse snitch testimony simply by putting them on the witness stand as witnesses, signaling to the jury that the prosecutor believes their testimony is trustworthy.”

In other words, jurors tend to believe every witness the government puts in front of them. If the prosecutor believes the guy, jurors reason, he must be legit. They’re the experts.

En route to the conviction of David Black, Detective Joseph Fox and AUSA Kenneth Whitted were driven to distraction by the antics of Larry Johnson. He was a nightmare witness from beginning to end (more on that later).  But, as they would hasten to point out, Johnson’s testimony was corroborated by a second witness.  That’s our story for next time.