In Defense of Johnny Martin | Letters | Chicago Reader

In Defense of Johnny Martin 

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To the editors:

I was Johnny Martin's lawyer during the first few months of the Arana lawsuit ["The Hero and the Taxpayer," March 22]. Before moving on to private practice, I had the opportunity to interview Johnny Martin at length about the Arana incident. For ethical reasons, I cannot disclose what he told me about the incident, but I am firmly convinced to this day that Johnny Martin believed he was in danger when he unholstered his gun.

Ms. Levinsohn paints a grossly distorted picture of Johnny Martin. Johnny may have been well-versed in martial arts, but he was no Rambo. He was a small man. He was a humble and soft-spoken man, but not intellectually gifted. He did not drink, deriving almost a spirituality from his martial arts training.

The variations in the eyewitness accounts of the Arana incident trouble Ms. Levinsohn much too much. This incident was intense and fast-paced. Some of the witnesses may have had a few drinks. Under those circumstances, one could take any crowd of five people viewing any incident and the stories would not come out the same. Perception is wondrously subjective. Before again ascribing evil motives to someone like Johnny Martin based on "eyewitness" accounts of an intense, fast-moving event, I recommend Kurosawa's Rashomon to Ms. Levinsohn.

Ms. Levinsohn's story has a bias to it for which I give credit to the Arana lawyer, Ted Stein. Mr. Stein is a good lawyer. Her story also contains several factual omissions. First, she states that Professor James Fyfe is "advising Stein." Translated, Professor Fyfe is a paid expert hired by Stein to prove his case. Second, she says that Stein filed a federal lawsuit. In fact, this case was originally filed in the circuit court, where it would have languished for years. The city of Chicago and Martin removed the case to federal court--a move opposed by the Arana lawyers--for the purpose of obtaining a speedier resolution. Finally, Ms. Levinsohn never called me about her story nor, to my knowledge, did she contact the present city lawyers.

I also question the Reader's timing. There was enough information available to write this story in June, 1990. Only now, as police brutality mania sweeps the country, does the Reader release this story. For those interested in achieving a better understanding of what cops face in their work, I recommend Connie Fletcher's What Cops Know.

Johnny Martin was not an evil cop. May he rest in peace.

William B. Mackin

W. Melrose

Florence Hamlish Levinsohn replies:

I certainly did not intend to portray Johnny Martin as evil. Hitler was evil. Stalin was evil. And as I watch what's happening in Iraq these days, I'm inclined to say that George Bush is evil. But my portrait of Martin was simply that of a very uptight, rigid man who should not have been a cop, a job that requires judgment and flexibility. One doesn't have to be an intellectual giant for the job, only a reasonable person who has some self-control and some respect for others. Martin made very evident in his massive deposition that he had a big problem with self-control and not much concern for others. I believe he was a trigger-happy cop--all too ready to pull a gun when he was angry and frustrated, regardless of the nature of the events. If, as Mackin believes, Martin actually saw himself in danger when he pulled his gun, he obviously badly misread the signs. It looked to me as though he got angry and frustrated because Arana was defying him, hardly a reason to pull a gun and shoot someone dead. As I listened to the testimony in the Lionel Myles case in which he was convicted of killing Martin, it sounded like the same kind of situation arose. Unfortunately, this time the other fellow was quicker on the trigger.

If there was a bias in the story, it was entirely my own, derived from reading thousands of pages of depositions from witnesses and police officers. I tried to write that story as straightforwardly as possible, including all the relevant facts that a Reader article could handle. Perhaps the facts just fell on the side of Arana and of Myles. Can we assume that the lawyer who was expected to defend Martin and the police force for the city would not have a little bias of his own?

Finally, I wonder if Mackin actually read the entire article. It certainly provided a Rashomon-like array of perceptions of the killing of Arana and Martin, and of the personalities involved. Mackin is undoubtedly disturbed that the pictures that emerged of Martin and the police force are not the ones he saw as their defense attorney. The reason for stories like this one and others describing problems with the police force is to inform the public about some of the people who are out there allegedly protecting us as well as some of those in the police force who presumably protect us from the all too prevalent brutal cop--in the hope that public pressure will prevent some of the brutality.

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