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|Johnson tenure as District Attorney ending after 24 years|
John Johnson says he's looking forward to a more private life in the years to coming after spending the past quarter century in a very public job as District Attorney of the Seventh Judicial District, comprising Catahoula and Concordia parishes.
Johnson's fourth and final term of office will come to an end when Brad Burget takes the oath as District Attorney on Monday.
After four terms -- the last three unchallenged -- Johnson will soon enter private practice in Harrisonburg.
He was elected district attorney in 1984 at the age of 31, the youngest man ever to hold the Seventh Judicial District post for Catahoula and Concordia parishes. He also held the position longer than any other DA in the district's history.
He defeated Leo Boothe, now the Division B judge, for the DA post 25 years ago.
"John has shown excellent judgment," said Boothe. "One of the most important functions of a DA is to make good decisions. John's also prevailed in court against some of the most noted defense attorneys in the state."
Boothe added that Johnson "has been a longtime friend and cohort and will be sorely missed in the Seventh Judicial District justice system."
While growing up in Harrisonburg, Johnson was attracted to the courthouse and to a love of law enforcement and law. He says that his grandfather -- John Ernest Johnson -- was a great influence on his life.
"My grandfather graduated from Tulane law school in 1916 and went into private practice," said Johnson. "He was paralyzed and practiced out of a wheelchair. He sent me into the courthouse to run errands and pick up papers. I was learning about law when I was eight-years-old and doing some legal research."
His grandfather set the standard that Johnson always tried to follow.
"He worked hard and he was a good lawyer," said Johnson. "When I started practicing the legal field was made up of people who wanted to do right and do good. I think that money, greed and too many attorneys have hurt our profession. Bad attorneys pervert the law."
Johnson graduated from Harrisonburg High School in 1971, from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches in 1975 and earned his law degree from Tulane in May 1978.
It was during his years studying at the universities that he became greatly involved in law enforcement. He helped developed the test used today to certify police officers and was instrumental in establishing the North Louisiana Crime Lab in 1976.
"I'm still on the board," said Johnson. "I've always worked well with police chiefs, sheriffs, judges, legislators and others. I'm proud of that."
After college, he worked for Jim Brown of Ferriday, then a state senator, for a year while Brown ran for Secretary of State. Johnson joined the DA's office in 1980 under John Sturgeon and served as an assistant DA until he was elected to the DA's post.
"I was a criminal defense lawyer while I worked for Jim Brown," said Johnson, "but I didn't like being a defense lawyer. I never liked representing someone who was guilty."
During the course of his 24-year career as DA, he has tried more than two dozen murder cases and worked an additional three to four dozen other homicides and numerous rape cases. In 2003, he prosecuted a longtime serial child molester. The man was given a life sentence.
"I enjoy the courtroom work," said Johnson. "I really like jury trials. That's what lawyering is to me -- practicing law before a jury.
He said prosecuting child abuse cases are the most difficult.
"You look at these children and you realize the system has betrayed them and someone has to take up for them," said Johnson.
Johnson said the number of felonies has increased four-fold since he took office a quarter century ago, while misdemeanors may have declined somewhat.
"Drug offenses dominate criminal court and are systematic of other problems in our communities," said Johnson. "Two decades ago, marijuana was the major drug problem. Now it's crack cocaine and crystal meth. The drugs today are devastating."
He's investigated numerous white collar crimes, having convicted a mayor, a sheriff, two town clerks, three police jurors, one police jury employee and a few police officers.
"I learned early on that power should be treated with respect and not abused for political reasons or monetary gains," said Johnson.
Johnson's laid back style may be misunderstood by some, but that it's simply his nature.
"I silently go about getting the job done," he said. "I've always been available to the people -- rich, poor, disenfranchised, disadvantaged, every one."
He said he's "never taken a bribe or been involved in a financial scandal."
During his tenure the DA's office has never been cited by the Legislature Auditor or the Attorney General over any financial issues.
"We've had some minor procedural issues, but never anything more than that," said Johnson, who attributed much of the success "to a great staff."
Paul Scott, Nona McClure and Melanie Smith have been with him from the beginning, he said.
"I been working with John 30 years counting his time as assistant DA," said Scott. "John made a good DA. He looked out for the people and helped a lot of people. He also put a lot of bad guys away."
The DA staff has increased about two-fold to about 20 employees today, said Johnson, while he was instrumental in lobbying to increase the number of assistants for the Seventh Judicial District from two to five.
"I've found the job to be very enjoyable overall and I think we've accomplished quite a bit," he said. "There's been failures I'm not proud of but I wouldn't be human otherwise."
Johnson said he regrets that his time as DA is coming to an end but said the past six years have been difficult, both physically and emotionally.
"I have dealt with two tragic losses of loved ones, and four life-threatening health issues," said Johnson, who has spent about 50 days in the hospital over recent years.
His suffers from serious back problems that leave him in constant pain, he said.
After he leaves office, he plans to spend more time with his family as well as fishing, hunting and "catching up around my place."
Johnson plans to go into private practice, but says he will be glad to provide new Dist. Atty. Brad Burget advice if called upon.
"I'm be available if Brad needs me," said Johnson.
Johnson said that he would advise Burget and anyone taking office "not let the power of office go to your head. The power belongs to the people. Do what's right and don't be guided by politicians who will tell you how to do your job or use you for their own political gain. We are given awesome power and it must be treated with respect and handled very carefully."
He also said Burget should seek advice from people he respects. "I sought advice from Judge (R.P.) Boyd, Judge (W.C.) Falkenheiner, Paul Scott and my mother."
He says he'll "miss helping people who need help. When I first started as DA I was asked why I didn't run for judge. I never wanted to be a judge."
Money was never a motivation either, he said. "I was born poor but I feel rich."
"I owe my public service to the people," said Johnson. "And I thank them for their trust and confidence in me through the years."
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