Dion Johnson's Family Vows Legal Action After Trooper Is Cleared in Fatal Shooting

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel declined to file criminal charges against the DPS trooper who shot Dion Johnson.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel declined to file criminal charges against the DPS trooper who shot Dion Johnson. Josh Kelety
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel won't file any criminal charges against the Arizona state trooper who shot and killed Dion Johnson, a 28-year-old Black man.

"While this is a tragic outcome, criminal charges against the trooper are not warranted," Adel said at a September 21 press conference.

On May 25, Department of Public Safety trooper George Cervantes allegedly found Johnson asleep in the driver's seat of a car parked in a gore area along the Loop 101 freeway. The trooper told investigators that he smelled a "strong odor of alcohol," according to news reports, and that Johnson had a handgun in the front seat. (A toxicology report eventually found that Johnson had fentanyl, methamphetamine, and marijuana in his system at the time.)

After securing the gun in his motorcycle saddlebag, Cervantes requested backup to arrest Johnson and attempted to remove the key from the car's ignition as Johnson began to wake up. He attempted to handcuff Johnson from the driver's side of the car, and a struggle ensued. Cervantes claimed that Johnson eventually grabbed his vest and left wrist while the trooper was holding his firearm. Cervantes shot at Johnson twice and hit him once, telling investigators that he feared that he could be pushed into the freeway. Johnson later died of his injuries.

Johnson's death has since become a high-profile lightning rod in metro Phoenix amidst a summer of nationwide social unrest over police brutality and racial injustice. The shooting and the initial lack of publicly released information about the incident sparked local protests.

Adel cited eyewitness accounts corroborating Cervantes' telling of the incident and state law governing self-defense to justify her charging decision. Cervantes was not wearing a body camera, a fact that Adel, who is running for reelection as County Attorney, lamented during the press conference. She called for officers across the state to be equipped with the technology.

"In Arizona, a person is legally justified of using deadly physical force if the person reasonably believed that force was necessary to protect their own life," Adel said. "Trooper Cervantes reasonably feared for his life."

State records show that Johnson had a troubled childhood with numerous juvenile arrests, and had spent most of 2007 to 2019 in Arizona prison for charges including armed robbery, theft, burglary, and aggravated assault.

The decision not to charge Cervantes in Johnson's death falls in line with historical trends. According to an analysis conducted by the Arizona Republic between 2011 and 2020, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office declined to file criminal charges in 90 percent of the police shooting cases it reviewed.

Adel disputed the notion that her office goes easy on police.

"When the facts and evidence justify a criminal prosecution against an officer, this office has charged those cases and we will continue to do so," Adel said. "Officers do not get a greater benefit of doubt than any other person facing criminal prosecution."

In response to the announcement, Johnson's family and their attorney, along with local activist groups like Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, held a press conference in opposition to Adel's charging decision.

"Deep down in my heart, I knew that she wasn't going to charge him for my son's murder. They're making it seem like my son was the aggressor. No, he wasn't. George Cervantes was the aggressor." said Erma Johnson, Dion's mother. "Yes, my son may have risked an arrest. But does that give him the right to shoot my son?"

"There has to be a change. This has to stop," she added. "The system fails me, it fails me, it fails my son, it fails us Black people. It fails to protect and serve."

"It's a one-sided story," said Jocquese Blackwell, the attorney representing Johnson's family. "This is a credibility contest. And when there's a lack of credibility by a particular witness, particularly a witness who shot and killed Dion Johnson, I think it's more prudent to charge George Cervantes with a crime of homicide and let a jury determine whether or not his statements were credible, to determine whether or not he's guilty or not guilty of homicide."

click to enlarge Jocquese Blackwell, the attorney representing Johnson's family, speaks at a September 21 press conference on Adel's charging decision. - JOSH KELETY
Jocquese Blackwell, the attorney representing Johnson's family, speaks at a September 21 press conference on Adel's charging decision.
Josh Kelety
Blackwell criticized Adel for admitting during the press conference that her office "did not receive" or consider Cervantes' Department of Public Safety internal personnel records, which reportedly show that over a dozen complaints have been made against the trooper in the past. The trooper allegedly used his taser on a family dog several times.

"To not consider George Cervantes' background doesn't make any sense," he said.

Johnson's family will soon be submitting a notice of claim, a procedural precursor to a lawsuit, Blackwell said.

Julie Gunnigle, a Democratic candidate gunning to oust Adel from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in the November election, also spoke at the press conference, where she criticized the decision not to charge Cervantes.

"What I saw today was political," she said. "What I saw today was cowardice."

"I want my voice to join everyone else who is calling out today for accountability and transparency," Gunnigle added. "The time has come. We need equal justice now."

In a statement, State Representative Reginald Bolding, a Democrat who represents parts of south Phoenix, pointed to footage of the incident captured by Arizona Department of Transportation traffic cameras, which appear to show troopers standing over Johnson while he writhed on the ground after he was shot.

"It is odd to me that Allister Adel appears to have limited her determination of wrongdoing to the shooting itself, which had no video evidence, and not the critical last minutes of Dion Johnson's life, which were captured on Arizona Department of Transportation traffic cameras," he said. "In that footage, the Troopers are not rendering aid, but standing over Dion Johnson, who was alive and writhing in pain for several minutes while an ambulance sits parked only a short distance away. When every second counts, why were the decisions Mr. Cervantes made during these critical minutes not considered?" 

"Dion Johnson could have and should have survived this encounter with police," Bolding added. "In Arizona we must continue to seek legislative changes to ensure this type of violence is not allowed to continue unchecked. We need substantial reforms, including changing the use-of-force statutes in Arizona that allow for wide discretion in taking someone's life."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety