More than two years after he first appeared in court on charges he molested a boy at an Irish Channel elementary school, Ronald Johnson’s case is unresolved.
Johnson, 55, was charged with sexual battery and indecent behavior with a juvenile. He pleaded not guilty on April 6, 2015.
Since then, hearings, trials, and other deadlines have been rescheduled 15 times.
Most of those times, the case was rescheduled at the joint request of the prosecutor and the public defender. Once, Johnson’s trial was scheduled for Election Day — a court holiday.
Other times, his public defender was double-booked in another courtroom. The state has asked to reschedule, too.
On Jan. 13, 2015, Johnson went to the boys’ restroom at ReNEW SciTech Academy and told the 12-year-old boy to come to his room after the boy was finished, according to a police application for an arrest warrant.
The boy obliged. There, Johnson told him it was his birthday, asked him for a hug, grabbed his genitals and licked his neck, according to court documents.
Johnson, an interventionist, stopped working at the school the day after the alleged incident. ReNEW wouldn’t say whether he quit or was fired.
Johnson was arrested nearly two months later, on March 4.
Many reasons for delays
There have been eight continuances regarding pretrial motions and five after the case entered the trial phase last summer, said Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche.
Judges must agree to delay a case if lawyers for both sides request it, Goyeneche said.
Criminal District Court Judge Ben Willard is presiding over Johnson’s case. In 2015, the Metropolitan Crime Commission found Willard had the third highest quarterly average of open felony cases, at 355. The average among the court’s 12 judges was 263.
However, Willard’s share of open cases older than a year was lower than the average.
“This case, I think, has been poorly managed by the judge,” Goyeneche said.
Cases are more likely to go to trial, and take longer to resolve, when the defendant faces prison, Goyeneche said. Johnson is facing 25 years on the sexual battery charge alone.
Johnson got a new public defender last year, which delayed the case several months, Goyeneche said.
Further, Johnson is out on bond. “In the judge’s defense, usually jail cases are given priority over free-on-bond cases,” Goyeneche said.
However, he said, “I think that if this were under the authority of some of the other judges in that building, this probably would have been tried by now.”
Willard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Simone Levine is the executive director of Court Watch NOLA, an organization that sends volunteers into courtrooms to monitor cases.
When cases are rescheduled again and again, trauma victims don’t have closure, she said. Defendants who aren’t in jail sometimes struggle to hold down a job because of a litany of court dates.
“The longer a case drags on, the more often witnesses and evidence disappear; memories dim,” Levine said.
Johnson’s public defender did not return a call for comment.
Arrest should show up on background check
Johnson’s arrest should show up on a background check if he were to apply for a job at another school, according to Louisiana State Police Trooper Melissa Matey.
State law forbids school districts from hiring people who are convicted of or have pleaded no contest to many crimes, including the charges Johnson faces.
Even without a conviction, employers can take an applicant’s arrest record into account when making a hiring decision if the conduct underlying the charge relates to the job.
In the past, charter schools could hire private companies to do background checks. Those firms may not have access to as much information as the State Police, so the company may provide an incomplete criminal history.
That’s likely what happened with an employee at New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy who was investigated for fraud involving school funds. The school’s private background check only went back seven years, shorter than the State Police’s, and didn’t pick up a charge in Terrebonne Parish.
Schools are now required to use the State Police for background checks.
Matey said the state uses a fingerprint database that should show arrests in Louisiana and out of state, as long as the person was fingerprinted.
Johnson’s trial is now scheduled for August 22, 28 months after he first pleaded not guilty.