County to reinvestigate Black student’s death, SJSU president says
San Jose State University says county officials are reopening an investigation into the suspicious death of a Black student in 2008. Courtesy photo.

San Jose State University President Mary Papazian announced this week the county coroner and district attorney will reexamine the suspicious death of student Gregory Johnson Jr., according to an email obtained by this news organization.

“SJSU recognizes that for many members of our community, the circumstances surrounding Gregory’s death are emblematic of longstanding systemic racism in our nation,” Papazian wrote in a Feb. 18 email to students. “The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office and Coroner’s Office recently agreed to undertake a new review of the coroner’s report, once the pandemic allows them to do so. We will cooperate with any requests for information.”

The decision comes following growing pressure from SJSU students and activists to reopen the case and investigate the circumstances that led to Johnson’s death. Activists held an Election Day protest outside the Sigma Chi fraternity house, where Johnson was living at the time of his death, to bring awareness to his case.

SJSU president Mary Papazian sent an email to students on Thursday revealing that the coroner’s office is re-investigating the Gregory Johnson Jr. case. Screenshot by Sonya Herrera, courtesy of Tiffany Yep.

Johnson’s body was discovered in the Sigma Chi fraternity house on Nov. 22, 2008, shortly after the election of President Barack Obama, the United States’ first Black president. Police determined his death to be a suicide, but many people — including his own mother — believe he was murdered in a hate crime.

Papazian, who has mostly been mum about the death until now, also invited students to participate in a fundraiser being held Friday and Saturday for the Johnson family, organized by Symone Jackson and SJSU students Cris Acosta, Nina Chuang and Leland Pama. Jackson said the fundraiser would help the Johnson family hire a civil rights attorney.

Gregory Johnson, Jr. smiles while embracing his friends. Photo courtesy of Justice for Gregory Johnson.

When Jackson first heard the story of Johnson’s death, one detail above all caught her attention.

“The amount of blood that was in Gregory’s room and his belongings … the investigative authorities have never acknowledged that,” said Jackson, an alumna of Santa Clara University. “Nobody has addressed why there was so much of his blood in his bedroom.”

Jackson met Gregory’s mother, Denise Johnson, in 2012 at a Justice for Trayvon Martin event in San Jose. She soon began researching and publicizing suspicious details about his death in an effort to convince the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office to reinvestigate the case.

These blood-stained garments and towels were found in Gregory’s laundry hamper, according to Denise Johnson. Photos courtesy of Denise Johnson.

Dana Overstreet, who was supervisor of the Santa Clara County District Attorney Office’s homicide unit at the time, said her team thoroughly investigated the case, but could not find any evidence of wrongdoing.

“We looked and looked and looked, and as I recall, we couldn’t come up with anything … we came to the conclusion that it was not a homicide,” Overstreet told San José Spotlight. “It didn’t look like we were going to be able to show that it was a murder, let alone (identify) a suspect … there just was nothing that could point us in a different direction.”

The coroner’s office declined to confirm it has reopened the case, despite the email from Papazian. However, officials told Denise Johnson in an October email that Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Michelle Jorden would personally review the case.

Chief investigator Rosa Vega emailed Denise Johnson on Oct. 23, saying that Chief Medical Examiner Michelle Jorden would re-examine Gregory’s case. Photo courtesy of Symone Jackson and Denise Johnson.

Many questions in the case remain unanswered. There is no explanation for why Gregory’s mattress, which he had purchased himself, had been replaced in his dorm room, or why blood-stained garments and towels were found in his laundry hamper.

Jackson raised alarm that SJSU police Officer Frits van der Hoek — who fatally shot Antonio Guzman Lopez years later in 2014 — was involved in investigating Gregory’s case. Van der Hoek was an intern at the District Attorney’s Office at the time, according to Jackson.

“The cop who yelled ‘shoot him, shoot,’ was the lead investigator on the Gregory Johnson case,” Jackson said. “(Santa Clara County District Attorney) Jeff Rosen cleared him for the investigation, judged him not guilty.”

 

Overstreet said she wasn’t concerned about the integrity of officers involved in the case. A witness needs to come forward to help break the case, she added.

“I just remember it being a very difficult pill to swallow. … I put my heart and soul in this to try to make this right for the family,” Overstreet said. “Unless somebody came forward, or there was a similar case … very rarely do you get away with murder.”

Jackson is also hoping someone steps up and shares what they know about the case.

“A witness needs to come forward (with) new information that would basically trigger an investigation by authorities, not just by the coroner’s office,” Jackson said. “Mrs. Johnson has exhausted every formal pathway. She’s used every tactic that she could to get the findings released.”

Readers can learn more about this weekend’s fundraiser here.

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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