How Gov. Nixon “Besmirched”
© Jack Cashill
With one eye on the presidency—he’d settle for “vice”—Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made the rounds of the morning news shows this past Sunday to rationalize his mishandling of the freak show being staged in Ferguson.
As a would-be national candidate in an increasingly leftist party, Nixon has his critics. According to the Washington Post, some see him as “too moderate for the Democratic Party’s base.”
Again according to the Post, Nixon has had an “uneasy relationship with black voters.”
On Sunday, the ambitious governor used the platform provided by CBS’s Face the Nation to disprove his critics and to prove he can pander enough to represent the national party.
"I think it had an incendiary effect," Nixon said of Michael Brown’s starring role in now famous convenience store video. The Ferguson police, he argued, were “attempting to besmirch a victim of a shooting, shot down in his own street, a young man.”
Besmirch? There was a time in not so distant past when then Attorney General Jay Nixon was not so squeamish about besmirching the state’s citizens. In fact, he went shockingly beyond the besmirching stage.
For Heather Johnson* and fourteen other Missouri citizens, there is no forgetting and no forgiving. Allow me to explain.
On March 30, 1996, the 22 year-old Heather happily shucked her apron at the suburban Kansas City McDonald's where she worked and headed out with her fiancé to a potluck dinner at a Knights of Columbus Hall in mid-Missouri.
The potluck was organized by a group of folks who took the state and federal constitution as seriously as fundamentalist do the Bible.
That evening they were holding what they called a "common law grand jury" to assess certain police actions in the area. They were one short of the necessary twenty-four and cajoled the apolitical babysitter into sitting in.
One fellow appeared before the jury to protest a judge's treatment of his 17-year-old daughter after a traffic stop. The grand jury had also invited the judge to come explain his action.
Not surprisingly, the judge blew the constitutionalists off, and the grand jury decided in the plaintiff's favor. They told the plaintiff that under Missouri law he had a right to file a lien against the judge's property. He promptly did just that.
Bad move. Nixon, eying a Senate run, was looking for an opportunity to strut his anti-terror stuff, a then fashionable strut among the party faithful.
Some months passed before Heather learned of Nixon’s ambitions, and she learned the hard way. The state police came to her home late one night, handcuffed her, and hustled her off to jail.
The frightened burger-flipper would soon learn that she had "tampered with a judicial officer by engaging in conduct reasonably calculated to harass [the judge], namely, filing a lien with the Lincoln County Recorder of Deeds on the property of [the judge.]"
The fact that the lien had been immediately expunged did not deter Nixon. Nor did the fact that Heather had not signed the lien or filed it.
At the time of the incident, in fact, Heather did not know what a lien was. She would tell me later, in a St. Joseph prison, "The word had yet to come into my vocabulary."
This was a real prison, by the way, a Show-Me Guantanamo with coiled razor wire on the tops of the walls and big fat mommas in orange jump suits wandering the halls.
Heather had already served one year of a two-year sentence when I interviewed her for a local TV station. (I still have the tapes).
She had been tried as a group with fourteen others in Lincoln County. Curiously, the two men who actually filed the lien were not charged.
Another curiosity was that the lien was technically legal at the time it was filed—the legislature would not ban common law liens until August of that year.
Given the thinness of the charges, Heather and the fourteen others fully expected to be exonerated. They chose to defend themselves.
"We range from ages 23 to 78," a Vietnam vet told the jury in his opening statement. "We are farmers, mechanics, carpenters, truck drivers, equipment operators, a cross section of America.” But they were also all white. So no one in the media gave a damn.
Nixon had no pity on these “paper terrorists,” the preferred media term of the day. Before a jury pulled from a well poisoned pool, Nixon and his crack team of Assistant AGs hammered the fifteen.
All of them were convicted. Thirteen received two-year sentences. The two presumed ringleaders were given seven years each and denied bail, all for inconveniencing a judge.
When Heather told me the facts of the case, I had a hard time believing them. I insisted on reading the trial transcript and all the reporting around the trial until I was satisfied her story was true.
Wanting to find out more, I got Nixon to appear on a daily talk radio show I was then hosting.
Nixon spoke of a "growing movement" and "an accelerating problem." He said he had tried a reasoned approach "with these people,” but they would not listen.
The Missouri 15, however, claimed that they never talked to Nixon, nor heard from the state until arrested. The evidence that any threats of violence came from the defendants was non-existent.
Another prickly issue was why Nixon selected just fifteen of the 24-man jury for prosecution. He told me that the state cracked down only on the activists, but that hardly explains the imprisonment of a clueless baby-sitter.
Happily for Nixon, the media, local and national, turned a blind eye to this story. But we warned, gov, those Democratic “oppositional research” teams won’t be nearly so understanding.
(* I have changed Heather’s name to protect her but no other detail.)
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