Death of Anthony Johnson, who died in custody at the Tarrant County Jail in April, ruled a homicide

Johnson’s cause of death was listed as asphyxia (mechanical and chemical), according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

FORT WORTH, Texas — The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office Friday classified the death of 31-year-old Anthony Johnson as a homicide. 

Johnson, a former Marine, died on April 21 in the Tarrant County Jail’s custody after a struggle with jailers outside his cell. Examiners ruled that Johnson died from mechanical and chemical asphyxia, meaning he could not get enough oxygen because his airways were restricted by a chemical and a physical force or object. 

Video of the incident shows Officer Rafael Moreno kneel on Johnson’s back for 90 seconds. Deputies also used pepper spray during the incident, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn confirmed in May, though the medical examiner’s report did not name the chemical affecting Johnson’s breathing. 

Johnson can be heard saying he “can’t breathe” in video the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office released. 

More details from the medical examiner were not immediately available. The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to WFAA’s request for comment Friday.

“We already knew that everyone involved in Anthony’s death needed to be terminated, criminally charged, and prosecuted,” said Daryl K. Washington, the attorney Johnson’s siblings have retained. “Now, that process should begin.” 

The Texas Rangers are leading the investigation into the incident, but would not comment Friday because their work is not complete. For the same reason, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office declined to say whether it intends to prosecute Moreno or any jailers involved. 

The homicide ruling does not necessarily mean criminal wrongdoing led to Johnson’s death. A person can kill another person without committing a crime, though defense lawyer Lisa Herrick told WFAA she believes the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s definition of “homicide” is similar to the criminal definition. 

Herrick, a partner attorney at Varghese Summersett who is not involved in this case, provided legal analysis to WFAA. She said homicides must be “knowing, reckless, or criminally negligent” to merit prosecution. 

The district attorney will ultimately decide whether any jailer committed a crime, she said. 

“The prosecutor is going to have all the evidence before them before they’re required to make that decision,” Herrick added. “At this point, the investigation is still ongoing. We don’t have answers to all the questions, so it’d be speculative to say one way or the other right now.” 

Friday’s ruling could also make some jailers liable in civil court, Herrick noted. 

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn fired but then reinstated Moreno and his supervisor, Lt. Joe Garcia. He said Garcia should’ve stopped Moreno from kneeling on Johnson’s back. 

Both were placed on paid administrative leave after their reinstatement, which was recommended by county attorneys who questioned whether Waybourn followed proper procedure in their firing. Jane Bishkin, the attorney, said Moreno was reinstated because civil service rules were not followed.

Garcia’s attorney, Randy Moore, released a statement on Friday, questioning why the executive chief was allowed to retire and why no one else is being held accountable. 

On Saturday, Moore released the following breakdown of the surveillance and cell phone footage released by Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office. 

“The use of force became necessary because of Johnson’s attack on detention officers at approximately 8:50:54. Officers and Supervisors already on scene are seen giving commands to Johnson. Garcia was in the supervisors office located in another part of the facility. OC spray appears to have been deployed at approximately 8:51:07. Garcia arrives on scene at approximately 8:52:50. The fight is continuing with multiple officers involved. Commands continue to be  given by officers and supervisors. Garcia is videoing and asking questions about whether Johnson is restrained. He is not in leg restraints, which is required for “restraint”. LVN and RN enter the housing unit, and are downstairs at approximately 8:53:33-37. The process of getting a less than fully restrained Johnson to medical begins. Johnson is still fighting. Officers are trying to restrain him. At approximately 8:55:35. Garcia detects from his position behind the fighting officers, supervisors, and Johnson, that Johnson had become unresponsive and yells for medical to come up the stairs. At approximately 8:56:28 Garcia defers Johnson’s care to medical personnel and medical  personnel assume care of Johnson at the top of the stairs. Garcia’s time on scene until deferring to medical is less than four minutes, from detecting lack of response to deferring to medical is less than a minute. Multiple supervisors and jail personnel were present before, during and after the events listed above. Despite what you are being told, the tactics publicly stated as what should have been done, are not part of the use of force policy or training at Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office. Garcia followed stated policy and practice in his limited involvement in this matter.  He is saddened by the outcome as well as the public persecution  he has received prior to a complete investigation being conducted and release of the full video along with policies and training actually practiced at Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.”

Attorney Daryl K. Washington released the following statement on behalf of the family of Johnson.

“The family of Anthony Johnson, Jr. feels the report from the Medical Examiner’s Office only confirms what was already extremely clear in the video that we saw together. We saw with our own eyes how Anthony was restrained, pepper sprayed, and forced to endure the pain of Jailer Rafael Moreno’s knee on him for over 90 seconds with the assistance of other jailers, while Lt. Joe Garcia and many others watched. We heard Anthony tell them, in his final words of life, that he could not breathe. We are aware that the jailers’ unnecessary use of the pepper spray contributed to Anthony’s death. In an extended video that has not been released to the public, we also saw a continuation of his brutalization after he was murdered. There is no denying any of this, so we are not the least bit surprised and no one else should be. We already knew that everyone involved in Anthony’s death needed to be terminated, criminally charged and prosecuted, and now that process should begin. Today’s ruling is only the beginning because there is still so much more that needs to be done, and we will not stop fighting until we reach the finish line.”

County commissioner Alisa Simmons issued the following statement. 

“Another heart-wrenching jolt for the family of Anthony Johnson Jr. came today with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s release of Mr. Johnson’s autopsy results. The manner of death in Mr. Johnson’s Tarrant County jail death case has been ruled a homicide; the cause of death was determined to be both mechanical and chemical asphyxia. I extend my sincerest condolences to Mr. Johnson’s parents, siblings, and entire family during this incredibly challenging time. I am saddened by the determination, yet I am not surprised by it, considering what we all witnessed in the partially released video. Each and every individual who had a role in causing Mr. Johnson’s death should be held accountable for their actions or inaction. The accountability I am calling for includes the filing of applicable charges for all involved to include detention officers, supervisors, and medical personnel. The shocking tactics displayed in the limited video that was released make clear that Sheriff Bill Waybourn is ultimately responsible for this tragedy. I repeat my call for the sheriff to release all remaining video footage that captured the excessive force death of Mr. Johnson to commissioners’ court members, followed by release to the public. As county executives, the first question we must ask and answer is: Could this have been avoided? I look forward to next week, when I have my initial meeting with the United States Department of Justice. I am committed to supporting efforts to ensure the Sheriff’s Office is seeking and implementing best practices. Until such time, I believe the Tarrant County Jail could benefit by a review by the U.S. Justice Department.”

“Despite the political grandstanding of some, this case will go forward and all corroborated facts will be presented in the halls of Justice,” said Sheriff Bill Waybourn.

Johnson is the sixth person to die in the Tarrant County jail this year, according to records from the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Johnson’s family has called for accountability and community members have called for the jailers to be prosecuted and for Waybourn to step down after the release of the video showing the fight with officers that led up to Johnson’s death.

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