LUCEDALE, Miss. – Surrounded by a crowd full of shock and suspicion, Annette and Billey Joe Johnson Sr. embraced on the steps of George County's red-brick courthouse and cried again over their dead son.
Minutes earlier a grand jury had determined Billey Joe Johnson Jr., a 17-year-old major college football recruit, had accidentally shot and killed himself with his 12-gauge shotgun during a Dec. 8 traffic stop.
The grand jury cleared the only known witness to the shooting, sheriff's deputy Joe Sullivan, claiming a combination of forensics, witness testimony and other evidence, proved he "could not have shot and killed Billey Joe Johnson."
Without any identifiable killer on the scene the only remaining causes of death were suicide or accident.
The grand jury went with the latter, claiming the powerful gun he often hunted with "accidentally discharged" at close range of his left ear, ripping off part of his head as he stood outside his Silverado.
It was a decision that, while designed for closure, left many with more questions than answers and left two parents in the middle of a hell from which they know no escape.
"I ain't buying that," Annette said of the accidental shooting determination.
Soon after, she was taken to a hospital due to chest pains.
That Billey Joe was black and Deputy Sullivan is white was simply a coincidence according to the grand jury. To others, it wasn't. Everyone can wish it weren't the case, but race was a major factor in how this incident was and will be viewed. For many blacks, century-old distrust in the police and the judicial system were stirred up.
When circuit court judge Robert Krebs, who is white, looked out at a gallery of about 100 blacks and just four whites gathered to hear the findings, he welcomed everyone to "your courthouse." It was met with rolled eyes.
And so the grand jury's decision quickly was dismissed. It didn't matter that the 20 people who have heard from the most witnesses and reviewed the most evidence unanimously had agreed.
By now, the case was too far gone for some.
Hope for common ground was lost when the two-month, closed-shop investigation created an information vacuum that was filled with wild rumors and speculative theories. Repeated often enough, and combined with reasonable questions, they took on a credibility that isn't easily broken.
Some of it hurt Billey Joe. It turns out the grand jury didn't think he actually was breaking into a girlfriend's house that morning, as police had asserted. He just was trying to talk to her. It turns out toxicology reports cleared him of alcohol, drug and steroid use, despite so many rumors.
Much of it hurt the police, though.
As such, there were talks of appeals. A civil suit remains a possibility, with the family already employing the Johnnie Cochran Law Firm.
Others promised the organization of a march that would "wash Lucedale out with 70,000 people." There were pledges to make this a national cause. Every bit of the grand jury findings will be combed through.
"We're going to let them know that you can't just feed us any kind of information," said onlooker Bobbie Jones. "This is 2009, not the 1900s."
Back on the steps Johnson Sr. had little left to say. The entire ordeal has been tortuous. "Half my heart is gone," he said. The Johnsons live way out in the woods here, 15 miles from town in an old single-wide trailer where the one-time logger tries to make ends meet out of too-small disability checks.
From that poor and obscure place all these rich and famous universities had sought his son to carry a ball for them. Billey Joe was one of the top players in the Class of 2010, and the family still clings to the recruiting mail from Notre Dame and LSU, Alabama and Auburn. No one is sure what's worse, that some schools have stopped sending letters or that some still do anyway, their mailing list apparently unaware of what happened.
Way out there Johnson Sr. said it gets so quiet at night he barely can stand it. He says he seldom sleeps. He just lays there in the silence and asks questions, seeks answers. He isn't ready to accept anything other than what he already has concluded; he can't let go of inconsistencies real or rumored.
There isn't a lot of grief therapy out in those woods.
Deputy Joe Sullivan wasn't at the courthouse Thursday, according to one of his co-workers. This was a day about him also. It was the first time since the incident that much of his side of the story became public.
He could've been indicted for murder, or a cover-up, or some other transgression. Instead the grand jury was unequivocal in his innocence.
For two months Sullivan had been hung out to dry. Listen to the rumors over coffee at the Lucedale Cafe or aisles of the Super Store out on 57 and you might hear he either killed a kid or knew who did. There's nowhere to hide in a place like this, little 2,700-person Lucedale.
The veteran cop was scheduled for a 6 a.m. shift that day but punched in early, at 5:28, as a courtesy to a co-worker. Just minutes on the job, when he still could've been sleeping, he spotted Billey Joe running a red light.
There's little question he violated procedure. He let Billey Joe drive a mile and a half before stopping. He allowed Billey Joe to get out of his truck and never checked for a weapon. When he returned to his patrol car, he was paying so little attention that Billey Joe managed to pull out a large, loaded shotgun.
Once the blast went off, though, he had no way to win. A white cop and dead black teen, with no witnesses, no dashboard camera and worst of all no ability to defend himself.
The investigation forbade him from speaking; the same for his superiors. With no one giving his side, his incident report was picked apart.
Just as Johnson Sr. sat and waited with questions, Sullivan sat and waited with answers.
The exoneration, especially spelled out in such clear terms, has to be a relief. It's not the end, though. The Johnsons want to know more about why Sullivan had gunpowder on his hands that morning (was it really from handling his own service revolver?). The questions about his procedures that day won't subside. No one can figure out why Billey Joe would pull out that gun in the first place.
In the end, Billey Joe died on Sullivan's watch. Forever around here, there will be some who never forget, let alone forgive.
The nights can be long and quiet in town, too.
Upstairs, in the second-floor courtroom of this classic Southern structure, Tony Lawrence is standing next to a wood rail trying to be as transparent as possible.
This was a tragedy for the Johnsons. This was a nightmare for Sullivan. For Lawrence, the local district attorney who handed the state's case, it was the ultimate professional challenge – a white-hot, racially charged, internal affairs whodunit of a local celebrity who attracted national attention.
Even the most well-meaning and honest of men will be charged with bias, mismanagement and corruption, probably by all sides. From the start, all he ever promised was a thorough investigation. All he ever asked for was patience.
"It was exhaustive," he said. "We did everything we could to pursue the truth."
The two months it took the tight-lipped Mississippi Bureau of Investigation seemed like forever around here. Interest in the case is all-encompassing. There was so little credible information. Lawrence offered no updates. No one was talking.
It created that pit of doubt that pulled in the Johnson family, Deputy Sullivan and so many others in. The girlfriend was focused on. The cops were defensive. Billey Joe got labeled. Everyone was pointing fingers in every direction. When no one knows the truth, sometimes no one can recognize it.
Even after Lawrence said he presented the grand jury with every known credible witness, dozens of pieces of evidence, multiple forensic experts and even testimony from people brought forth by the NAACP, outside the courthouse people were calling the entire thing a show. They said there were witnesses not considered and information not presented. They keep pointing to discrepancies and lost evidence.
Lawrence only could shake his head. "We overturned every stone that could be overturned," he said.
"I asked the community for patience," he continued. "I think most of them were patient. You're never going to stop the speculation, though."
Sometimes the silence can be loudest of all.
For some here, this is over; a terrible tragedy has been confirmed as just that. The grand jury has spoken in a reasoned and reasonable manner. There still are questions; there still are doubts on all sides. This isn't tidy, not even close.
"This is our system," Lawrence said.
For others the wounds are too deep for a report to heal. The time was too long, the rumor mill too fast and the fear too deep to believe anything but what they already believed. It was murder. It was suicide. The kid is bad. The cop is evil.
Mississippi's painstaking investigation might have been the best way to identify the truth. It wasn't painless, though. It wasn't victimless.
So for some the questions never will cease, the distrust never will wane, the reputation never will return and the silence of those Mississippi nights will haunt forever.
- Joe Sullivan