Statement of Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams upon entry of guilty pleas in State v. Hickman*:
On Aug. 25, 2017, as captured on body-cam immediately following his assault, Mr. Johnnie Rush repeatedly questioned his assailant. He essentially asked then-Asheville Police Officer Christopher Hickman, “How was I supposed to comply with your orders while you were assaulting me?” and “How did you think I had a weapon?”
Upon release from the hospital, but still in Hickman’s custody, Mr. Rush continued to engage Hickman, sincerely seeking to understand, through various questions, “How did this happen?”
After Mr. Hickman was charged, I consulted with Mr. Rush about his feelings and what justice could look like for him in this case. Upon reflection, Mr. Rush stated that what was most important to him was that the violation of his rights be recognized, that he receive an apology, and, if possible, that no one else should experience what he experienced.
With Mr. Rush’s wishes foremost in mind, and with recognition of the many limitations of our justice system — especially in cases of police misconduct — I initiated a restorative justice prosecution.
For me, restorative justice describes a process of mediation between victims and their perpetrators that can offer healing and transformation. Restorative justice requires admission of responsibility by the perpetrator and a commitment to follow through on actions to minimize further harm.
I believe this case is the first restorative justice prosecution of police excessive use of force in the nation. This District Attorney’s Office will continue to engage in ground-breaking restorative practices to better serve victims and to facilitate community healing.
Through this restorative process Mr. Rush had the opportunity to receive answers to many of his questions stemming from Aug. 25, 2017. In a direct, mediated conversation last fall, Mr. Rush and Mr. Hickman discussed what happened. Mr. Hickman answered questions at length, took responsibility and offered an apology. The following are just two excerpts from that conversation.
In response to a question posed by Mr. Rush, Mr. Hickman stated, “I pretty much left you with no choice and I left myself with no choice on how I’m supposed to react, and that’s not what I want to do for either one of us, but that’s on me. That’s what I did and that’s stuff I should have done better, and I’m sorry about that and I’m sorry that that situation happened and I’m sorry that the mistakes that I made made it get to that point.”
At the close of the conversation, Mr. Rush stated, “I learned a lot from this experience. … Like I just said, I am more at peace.”
I thank Mr. Hickman for voluntarily participating in this process, which continues, and his attorney, Mr. Thomas Amburgey, for supporting Mr. Hickman’s participation.
Throughout, Mr. Rush had the pro bono legal assistance of renowned civil rights attorney James “Fergie” Ferguson, an Asheville native practicing law out of Charlotte.
Mr. Jon Powell of the Campbell University Restorative Justice Clinic provided assistance. I thank him and his team for taking on this challenge and for his experience and knowledge in guiding the process.
I commend Mr. Rush for his bravery and commitment to making a better future not just for himself but for all pursuing restorative justice.
This process has been months in progress and will take many more months. My thoughts are with Mr. Rush, and I wish him peace and privacy as this process and his healing continue.
*After pleading guilty as charged, Mr. Hickman was convicted of Assault by Strangulation, Assault Inflicting Serious Injury and Communicating Threats, Mr. Hickman was placed on supervised probation for 12 months by Superior Court Judge William Coward. Mr. Hickman will perform community service and will comply with continued restorative justice events as directed by Mr. Powell. If while on supervised probation Mr. Hickman violates no law and complies with all requirements of his probation, his conviction will be dismissed by the court at the expiration of his supervised probation pursuant to N.C.G. S. 15A-1341(a4).