No headstone marks Tiras Johnson’s grave in Tulsa’s Crown Hill Cemetery.
His mother Netarsha Johnson said it’s difficult to go and visit her son’s burial site — weather often washes away the small metal marker, and without a stone it can be difficult to locate in the sprawling cemetery on Tulsa’s north side.
Johnson could barely afford to bury her son, much less buy him a headstone. Most times, she just chooses not to visit his grave. Having to search for it is like losing Tiras all over again.
“It gets overwhelming so I don’t go. Because then I feel like I lost my child again. I don’t know where he’s at,” Johnson said. “Until we get a stone out there, he’s always going to be lost.”
An alleged gang member gunned down the 23-year-old Tiras Johnson outside a Tulsa hotel in October 2013.
In 2014, 18-year-old William Rush, who had been visiting the hotel with Johnson and his cousin, pleaded guilty to Johnson’s murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced charge of second degree murder. As part of his guilty plea, he was required to pay $150 into the Oklahoma Victims Compensation Fund, in addition to other fines and court costs, court records show.
But Netarsha Johnson would not see any of that money Rush owed to the fund. Her son, according to a letter sent to Johnson by the Victim’s Compensation Program, had contributed to his own death by allegedly being in a gang.
Johnson’s story is not unique.
Families of black homicide victims were much more likely to be denied victim’s compensation funds than non-black victims of homicide, often based on the premise that the victims somehow contributed to their own deaths, Victim’s Compensation Program data analyzed by The Frontier shows.
The Frontier conducted an analysis of Victim’s Compensation data for cases resolved between Jan. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2018, which showed 38 percent of applications for black victims of homicide were denied, compared to a 27 percent denial rate for white victims.
The Oklahoma Victims Compensation Program, which conducted its own analysis of the data at the request of The Frontier, found a similar disparity —41 percent of applications for black homicide victims during that time were denied, compared to 27 percent for whites and a 33 percent denial rate for all races.
Though the decision of whether to award victim compensation funds is made at a state-agency level, the data showed that denial rates for black homicide victims varied between counties as well.
Oklahoma County, which had the most applications in the state filed by the relatives of black homicide victims, had a 44 percent denial rate, compared to a 27 percent denial rate for white homicide victims, according to the data. Meanwhile, applications submitted on behalf of homicide victims from Tulsa had a denial rate of 36 percent for black applicants and 23 percent for white applicants, the data shows.
The Frontier analysis also shows that black homicide victims were far more likely to be denied Victim’s Compensation funds based on a finding of “contributory conduct” than other races. More than 58 percent of the denials for black Oklahomans listed contributory conduct as the reason for denial, compared to a little more than a quarter of all denials for white homicide victims and 41 percent of denials for homicide victims of all races, the data shows.
Last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Marshall Project and the USA Today Network found similar racial disparities in states that deny victims compensation funds to victims who have criminal records.
Black Oklahomans are much more likely than other races to be victims of homicide. The homicide rate for black Oklahomans was more than nine times higher than of white Oklahomans, or 35.2 homicides for every 100,000 black residents compared to 3.7 homicides per 100,000 white residents, according to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s 2017 Uniform Crime Report, the latest data available, and U.S. Census estimates. In 2015, Oklahoma had the third highest black homicide rate in the nation, only behind Wisconsin and Missouri, according to the Violence Policy Center.
Suzanne Breedlove, director of the Oklahoma Victims Compensation Program, said race does not play a factor in decisions about whether a claim will be awarded and was unaware that any disparity existed prior to The Frontier’s analysis.
Officials say they are unsure exactly why the denial rate for black homicide victims is higher, citing possible socioeconomic and demographic reasons as possible explanations or higher homicide rates for black Oklahomans, but none say they know for certain.
“I don’t have an answer for you as to why, because we don’t really look at that,” Breedlove said.
Some activists believe the answer may lie in conscious and unconscious biases held by those in the criminal justice system.
“This is a very polarized view of it, but we victim-blame all the time. We begin to disparage the character of the deceased to throw off or remove guilt or deflect or distract,” said the Rev. Sheri Dickerson, director of Black Lives Matter OKC. “Black people are automatically considered or assumed guilty or associated more than our white counterparts all the time. I think it’s those same systems of bias and racial inequity at work in those denials.”
The pain of her son’s death brought Netarsha Johnson’s life to a screeching halt. The life she had built for herself and her children seemed to fall to pieces.
“Everything was good until that happened, then I lost my way. Nothing else mattered,” Johnson said. “When I lost him, I lost my mind, I lost my home, I lost everything. I couldn’t focus or get back on track.”
The Tulsa District Attorney’s Office gave Johnson information about the Oklahoma Victims Compensation Program, which they said might help cover funeral expenses for her son.
Johnson applied to the program for about $7,200 to help cover her son’s funeral costs.
Her application was rejected. She appealed, but that, too, was turned down.
Johnson received a letter from the Oklahoma Victims Compensation Program dated Jan. 17, 2014. The reason for the denial was listed:
“An award of compensation cannot be made if the victim’s actions contributed to the criminal incident. The incident appears to be gang related and the victim exercised poor judgement by choosing to be a gang member.”
The letter ended with, “We extend our condolences for the loss of your loved one.”
Johnson was livid. Her son was not a gang member, she said.
“They said that basically he brought his death on himself. That’s when I almost lost it,” Johnson said. “Tiras was quiet, for the most part. He liked to listen to loud music. For the most part, Tiras didn’t mess with anybody. He was one of those stay home kids.”
But investigators had determined otherwise. Homicide detectives, in paperwork submitted to the victim’s compensation program, stated that Tiras was in a gang, had a suspected gang tattoo and was allegedly arguing with Rush about gangs before the shooting.
The Victim’s Compensation Board later denied Johnson’s appeals.
“At that time, I was going through a lot,” Johnson said. “That (money) probably could have helped me keep my house, or to get him a stone.”
The Oklahoma’s Victims Compensation Program was established by the Legislature in 1981 to provide a method of compensation to victims of violent crime.
The victim’s compensation assessment was the first non-judiciary criminal fee to be charged toward those found guilty of crimes in the state, though since that time multiple fees that help fund non-judiciary branch agencies have been added to criminal cases.
In total, the fund took in around $7.5 million in fiscal year 2018 and paid out $5.2 million in victim’s compensation claims and an additional $1 million for sexual assault examinations, the program’s 2018 annual report states.
The fund will reimburse up to $7,500 for funeral expenses, up to $3,000 for counseling and grief counseling, and up to $40,000 for loss of support in some cases.
Though the fund will pay for medical care, loss of support for family members of the victim, and other services, it does not cover loss of or damage to property.
The program is overseen by a three-member board appointed by the governor and is administered by the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council.
The process begins when a claim is filed with the Oklahoma Victims Compensation Fund. Usually, the local district attorney’s office victims and witness coordinators work directly with the applicant to gather receipts, medical or funeral bills and other paperwork required to show the financial loss sustained by the victim.
Victim-witness coordinators at the local district attorney’s office also gather police and investigative reports associated with the case and send them to the Victim’s Compensation Program for review
Those police reports play a large role in the decision to award or deny a claim, Breedlove said.
To determine whether — or to what degree — a victim of crime may have contributed to their injury or death, the victim’s compensation program staff members rely on what is in those police and law enforcement investigative reports, Breedlove said.
If the police report says a person was committing a crime or in some way contributed to the crime, the Victim’s Compensation Administrator or board must determine to what degree the victim’s “contributory conduct” had in causing the injury or death. The degree is sometimes reflected by a percentage, and the amount that would have been awarded can be reduced by that percentage. Often, a finding that contributory conduct occurred means a full denial of the claim.
“Out of all the decisions, that (contributory conduct) is probably the hardest one we struggle with because each case is different,” Breedlove said. “You just don’t know what the facts are going to be until you read it. So we rely heavily on the police reports when making these decisions.”
It’s not a perfect process. Even district attorney’s office victim advocates say the reliance on police reports can create issues — the facts contained in those reports can change as the investigation moves forward and new information comes to light, and victim’s advocates in the district attorney’s office must regularly check back with police to see if the case has been updated.
“Really, the race never comes into play until we request a copy of the police report,” said Machele Walker, victim’s compensation advocate in the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. “I don’t know of any disparity to be honest. Any time we have anyone who comes into this office in person or by phone, they’re always afforded the opportunity to make an application.”
Walker, who is black, said she has seen people of all races rejected from victim’s compensation funds, and the race of the applicant is never an issue.
“In my honest opinion, I‘ve been doing victim’s comp for three years now, I have not seen a disparity between particular groups of people,” Walker said. “I’ve had African-American people get upset with me, I’ve had white people get upset with me. But as far as one race having a disparity over the other, that has not been my experience.”
After her application to the Victim’s Compensation Program was rejected, Netarsha Johnson learned one of the detectives had submitted paperwork stating her son had a suspected gang tattoo of “54 KBC” and witnesses had told police that he had been arguing with the suspected shooter about gangs before being shot.
In an in-depth look at Johnson’s case, journalist Brian Ted Jones, writing for This Land Press, found in 2015 that the 54 KBC tattoo was identified by Tulsa’s gang unit as referring to 54th Street North and Kenosha Block Crips, a street gang officers told Jones was affiliated with the Hoover Crips.
Still, Johnson says her son was not in a gang, and was not in regular contact with the people who were present the night he died.
When told by the detective about the tattoo, “I said ‘he could have a tattoo of Mickey Mouse, it doesn’t make him a part of the Mickey Mouse Club,’” Johnson said.
Johnson said she asked the detective to change his assessment about her son’s alleged gang affiliation. The witnesses who said he was talking about gangs were not credible, she said.
But the detective, she said, would not be swayed.
“’Good luck with getting it changed,’ is what he said to me. It broke my heart. I was so broken at that point,” Johnson said. “His job was to close out the case. He could care less. It was just another black child gunned down. ‘Let’s get this over with.’”
Tulsa attorney Jill Webb, who had previously represented Tiras on a minor criminal complaint and three appeals cases, said she has represented numerous gang members as an attorney, and Tiras just did not strike her as one. He did not have the array of tattoos or the attitude or the presence of a gang member, she said.
“In a million years I wouldn’t have picked Tiras (as a gang member),” said Webb, who is now an attorney for ACLU Oklahoma. “It wasn’t right. It just wasn’t. He didn’t talk that way, his mannerisms weren’t that way. He didn’t try to come across as hard.
“He struck me as curious and funny,” Webb said. “If he weren’t in special education classes, I would be surprised. He sure as hell didn’t deserve to die.”
Being in a gang is not, in and of itself, a reason for victim’s compensation denial, Breedlove said, but if the individual is involved in some type of illegal activity at the time of their death, it can be.
“We’ve had cases where a known gang member is sitting in their house and someone busts in and just starts shooting,” Breedlove said. “We have no evidence that it was another gang doing that. Or a known gang member gets hit by a drunk driver and is killed. They weren’t doing anything at the time that was related to illegal activity. They were just driving their car. So we just look at what was going on at that time.”
Unlike some other states, Oklahoma’s Victim’s Compensation Program does not consider past criminal convictions when determining whether to award a claim, Breedlove said.
Breedlove listed some common examples of contributory conduct that have impacted claims: challenging someone to a fight, breaking into a house and being shot by the homeowner, getting into a car with a driver who the victim knows is drunk, and the most common example — drugs.
“Just having drugs in your system when you’re murdered is not a reason to deny. But if the evidence shows someone is dealing drugs and gets killed as a result, then that’s an illegal activity,” Breedlove said. “When you see contributory conduct, it’s in all likelihood drug-related. Sadly, we’re probably going to see more of that … all drug crimes are now misdemeanors regardless of quantity or regardless of the drug. It’s making people less cautious about their dealing. There’s sadly a lot of deaths over drugs.”
It is not easy to deny claims, Breedlove said, and although she looks for every opportunity to award them, state law restricts who can be approved for funds.
“We really look for ways to award claims. It’s difficult to deny claims, especially when the family is left behind and they had nothing to do with it,” Breedlove said. “In many cases, they didn’t even know what their loved one was involved in and they’re the ones left paying the cost. It’s really hard for them to understand when we have to deny for that reason. We do everything we can not to deny, but we’ve got to follow the law.”
Looking for answers
On Sept. 26, 2015, Tina Adams’s son, 33-year-old Ray Adams, was gunned down in the streets of Oklahoma City.
“He was shot on the street in front of a gentleman’s house, who heard the gunshots and came out and held my son in his arms until the paramedics got there,” Tina Adams said.
To this day, no one has been arrested for her son’s death.
But though the case is still unsolved, when Tina Adams applied to the Oklahoma Victim’s Compensation Program to help pay for her son’s funeral, she was denied. The reason: contributory conduct.
What type of contributory conduct? Tina Adams said she was never told, only that he was engaged in some sort of criminal conduct at the time of his death.
The only document made publicly available in the case by the Oklahoma City Police Department is a short single-page initial report, which recounts the officer being dispatched to the address where Adams was found and little else. The police department denied The Frontier’s request for a supplemental report on Adams’ homicide that was mentioned in the initial report.
“That was insulting because not even the detectives on the case said he was involved in some kind of criminal activity to me. No one said that to me,” Adams said. “I think there were some assumptions being made, but they didn’t have any witnesses who were there when he was shot.”
Adams said at first she wanted to appeal the ruling, to fight what she saw as an unfair and unsubstantiated accusation against her late son. But the emotional wounds of losing her son had not yet closed.
“My son’s death was fresh at that time. You don’t have a lot of fight in you,” Adams said. “I kind of let it go.”
Most officials and agencies The Frontier spoke to said they did not have a definite answer for the gap in victim’s compensation approval rates between black homicide victims and other races.
Most did not know such a gap existed prior to The Frontier’s analysis of the data.
“I don’t have a reason for it, other than socio-economic maybe,” Breedlove said. “I don’t really know. When we’re reviewing claims, we don’t look at race. Our board doesn’t. I don’t. So this was surprising to me too to see these percentages. We never really sat down and studied that.”
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said the high denial rate for black homicide victims might be the result of gang-related violence, but was unsure of the exact reasons for the disparity.
“I would probably be speculating, but in my experience, unfortunately, the African American population … has been unfortunately caught up in some gang violence, so I can see some discussions about contributory conduct,” Kunzweiler said. “That would be speculation on my part, but a lot of times what I am seeing in homicide cases, there’s something else going on in that dynamic.”
Dickerson, said she has heard from numerous black victims of crime and their families who have been denied victim’s compensation funds.
But her experience with the program goes beyond the stories of others. It’s one that’s deeply personal.
On May 14, 1996, Dickerson’s father Joseph Sutton was fatally shot at the Charles Steak House during a botched robbery. Court documents state Sutton ran a gambling operation in a back room of the steak house. He was killed, court records state, when two armed men entered the game room attempting to rob it and a struggle over the weapons ensued. One of the suspects was later convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by an Oklahoma County jury, though the sentence was later commuted to life in prison without parole.
Dickerson said the relatively high denial rate for black victims of crime stems from systemic issues of oppression and racism. Many of the criminal justice systems now in place were set up in a way that tip the scales in favor of whites to the detriment of blacks, she said. And the victim’s compensation program, which relies on law enforcement reports to determine contributory conduct, is no exception.
“It’s implicit, it seems to be inherent and ingrained. In systems like this, it’s not addressed because a lot of people don’t even realize it’s there,” Dickerson said. “And the people who need to be speaking out against this are people who have already been dealt such a traumatic blow and such a great loss, they probably don’t want to or have the emotional capacity for that type of advocacy.”
The idea that implicit bias — unconscious biases that are present in all humans’ subconsciousness and are formed over a person’s lifetime through life experiences, media exposure and messaging — can have a profound effect on racial disparities at numerous levels of the criminal justice system is not unacknowledged by law enforcement and others in the criminal justice field.
And some say they are working to address the issue.
On June 26, the Tulsa City Council gathered at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center for a special meeting to discuss the findings of the city’s recently-release Equality Indicators report, which showed black juveniles were more than three times as likely to face arrest compared to their white peers.
On stage with the city council were six panelists — two Tulsa police officials, a former Tulsa juvenile court judge, a juvenile detention official, a community outreach coordinator, and a researcher who helped conduct the Equality Indicators study.
During the meeting, Tulsa city councilwoman Kara Joy McKee asked Tulsa Police Officer Jesse Guardiola, head of the department’s Hispanic Outreach Program, a pointed question.
“Would you say there is unconscious racial bias among officers in the TPD?” McKee asked.
The question hung in silence for a moment before Guardiola answered “Yes.”
“Let me be clear,” Guardiola continued, “we’re all human so we all have different pasts and biases. They’re not all the same.
“It is something that, when you add the human element to anything, depending on how they’ve been trained, how they’ve been raised, you’re going to have different biases, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be to one specific population.”
In an interview with The Frontier, Kunzweiler said he was not sure whether implicit bias played a role in the homicide victim award disparity, but the issue should be studied to see whether it exists and whether it plays a role.
“It would be wrong for me to say that shouldn’t be explored,” Kunzweiler said. “I think any time there is a disparity that those are the things that ought to be explored, whether it’s by my office or another DA office or by the compensation board. It certainly deserves scrutiny.”
Webb, Tiras Johnson’s former attorney, said Johnson’s case has stuck with her over the years because the case seemed to dehumanize Johnson, and the letter to his mother seemed callous.
“There was never any indication he was in a gang. I think factually that’s wrong, but even if he were, it doesn’t mean he was 100 percent responsible,” Webb said.
She, too, said she believes the disparity in victim’s compensation denials for black homicide victims is the product of implicit bias and institutionalized racism.
“This is racist. What else are you going to call it?” Webb said. “They need to talk to the mothers and fathers who are victims of these crimes. Because I think what they see, and this is a district attorney problem too, is that the world is made up of criminals and regular people and all we have to do is find the criminals and put them away and the regular people will be fine. They don’t understand that the criminals are the regular people.”
Over the years, different states have tried different ways of awarding victim’s compensation funds to homicide victims, Breedlove said, but efforts to establish a “one-size-fits all” methodology or awarding funds to the families of every homicide victim, have not been successful in other states.
“That’s part of the area that, if there’s controversy, has the most,” Breedlove said. “You want to award them, but unfortunately the statute requires us to look at the facts of the case. We can’t consider whether the guy had five kids that he left behind. There’s a lot of times I wish we could ignore that fact (contributory conduct), but then we wouldn’t be doing our job. I don’t think the public would appreciate that if we didn’t take those things into consideration.”
But for Netarsha Johnson, there’s little faith to be had in the system. It ended up making her feel worse during one of the lowest moments of her life.
“You have the grants and government funds to do this, so why wouldn’t you do it for everyone who was a victim?” Johnson said. “I don’t care if they’re a gang-banger or what they were. At the end of the day, if they were a victim, they’re a victim.”
It’s been nearly six years since buried her son, but when she talks about him, it’s clear that the wounds she suffered have not fully healed.
She still has not gone to the police station to pick up the belongings Tiras had on him when he was murdered. It’s a sense of finality that keeps her away.
“I think about it a lot,” Johnson said. “I’m afraid to go and get it. Maybe because I feel like that means he really is gone.”
Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Sutton’s victims compensation claim was denied. Breedlove said the claim was awarded for $10,000 in 1996.