Friday, May 15, 2009

Student who shot classmate to graduate, no jail time

Morehouse student shot classmate Rashad Johnson in 2007

Johnson survived, never returned to Morehouse, but shooter graduates this weekend

Shooter was offered a plea deal that avoided jail time; faced up to 20 years in prison

"I really feel sick, like how could this happen," Johnson says

Gary Tuchman and Ismael Estrada CNN AC360

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- About 500 students will graduate this weekend from Atlanta's prestigious Morehouse College. One person who won't be there is Rashad Johnson, shot three times by a fellow student. But the shooter will receive his diploma -- part of a plea deal that spared him up to 20 years in prison.

It's a puzzling case that raises a huge question: How can this be?

Even Atlanta's chief district attorney, Paul Howard, is outraged by the generous plea deal, an offer that was made by a prosecutor under his command.

"First of all, for the victim and his family, they deserved a better resolution," said Howard, a Morehouse graduate himself. "It seems like the wrong person got the right benefit."

Joshua Brandon Norris faced one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a second count for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. But in a court hearing in January, he was presented with what the judge described as "the break of your life." Watch Justice for all? »

He pleaded no contest to the first count; the second charge was dropped. He got six years of probation, a $1,000 fine and 240 hours of community service. He avoided any jail time, and the plea also mandated that he "remain in college and complete your college degree," according to court transcripts. The sentence was not the judge's idea, but he followed the prosecutor's recommendation.

Johnson, who still has a bullet in his left leg, says he wasn't told about the court hearing. When he learned of the plea deal, his reaction was: "He's gotta return to college? This criminal?"

Johnson's father died three months before the shooting. He had taken the semester off to grieve for his father, but remained in Atlanta and had planned to return to Morehouse the following semester. After the shooting, he went home to California to be with his mom and recover from his injuries.

His mother, Fahizah Johnson, said, "I am so disappointed because Morehouse has been an institution in my family for three generations."

"This guy shot my son three times, and he's still in school? He's still a student with other students?" she said. "I'm hurt for my son. I'm hurt for his dream deferred, but it's not over. And I'm thankful for his life and I'm thankful for his spirit."

The incident began at a Halloween party in 2007 at an Atlanta club, where Morehouse college kids had gathered for a bash. The club owner said he saw Norris causing trouble, and a bouncer threw him out the front door.

Minutes later, the people in the club heard gunshots and everyone hit the floor. The club owner said the shooter was the man he saw kicked out.

Johnson told CNN that there was an altercation outside the club and that he exchanged words with Norris. He said he didn't think much of it, and he began walking to his car when Norris pulled up in his Hummer, got out of the vehicle and pointed a gun at his head.

"When he put the gun to my head, all I could think about was I'm not going to let this kid take me away from my mom, especially with what she's dealing with right now," Johnson said.

He said he grabbed Norris' wrist and pulled his arm down when shots rang out. "I felt the sharpest burning sensation when the first bullet hit my leg. It actually made my leg buckle," he said.

Norris would not go on camera with CNN, and neither would his attorney. But his lawyer said that at the time of the shooting, his client felt his life was threatened and was defending himself.

CNN also asked Morehouse officials to comment on why Norris was allowed back in school and asked if they ever talked about safety considerations involving other students there. The school had allowed Norris to return to classes, even before the plea was entered.

Morehouse refused to discuss the issue on camera. But in a written statement, the school said, "The college cannot comment on specific student conduct matters, incidents of inappropriate student behavior, whether on or off campus."

The assistant district attorney who made the plea deal could not be reached for comment. Howard, his boss, said that the prosecutor of the case has resigned and that he would have been fired for his handling of this case. Howard feels a stiffer penalty was warranted.

"We are sorry this happened for so many reasons," Howard said. "When something like this happens, I am very upset by it."

He added, "It was an inappropriate sentence."

As for Johnson, he is attending Sacramento City College and plans to attend law school after he graduates in 2011. Johnson said he no longer wants to be a Morehouse man. The fact that Norris is graduating this weekend, he said, is an injustice.

"I really feel sick, like how could this happen," he said, fighting back tears.

Commentary: Celibacy should be rethought

Story Highlights
The Rev. Donald Cozzens: Celibacy is 1,000 years old but not intrinsic to the church

Many popes were married in the first millennium of the church, Cozzens says

Cozzens says church views marriage as sacred; why should priests be denied it?

Cozzens: Celibacy is a gift that should be optional, not mandated by the church

The Rev. Donald Cozzens is writer in residence and adjunct professor of theology at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. A priest of the Diocese of Cleveland with a doctoral degree, he is the author of several books on the Catholic Church, including "Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church" and "Freeing Celibacy," both published by Liturgical Press. For another view on this topic, read here.

(CNN) -- It's an issue that simply won't go away. In spite of signals from the Vatican discouraging even discussions of obligatory celibacy for Catholic priests, the almost 1,000-year-old rule is under the microscope. And it will be for decades to come. Here's why.

In the Catholic tradition, even though sex is cast as sinful unless expressed in the conjugal embrace of husband and wife, it is held as fundamentally good, a part of God's creation.

The church even holds that marriage (including spousal lovemaking) is a sacrament -- something sacred that contributes to the sanctity of husbands and wives. In light of this official teaching, it is dawning on many Catholics that mandatory celibacy for priests, a canonically imposed discipline of the church, is precisely that -- a discipline.

They are asking, "How is it that a discipline of the church has been allowed to trump a sacrament of the church?" In effect, the church is saying that should God call a man to the priesthood, God will not, at the same time, call that individual to the sacrament of marriage. It's right to ask, how does the church know this?

Public opinion surveys indicate that most Catholics, priests included, believe the discipline of celibacy needs a serious review. Recently the retired archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, observed that obligatory celibacy is open for discussion. It is not, Egan noted, a matter of dogma.

For decades now, bishops from Asia, Europe and the Americas have asked Vatican officials to consider optional celibacy for priests. The church's official response is consistent and succinct: As a precious gift from God, the discipline of celibacy for priests will remain in place.

This, in spite of the inherent paradox lying just below the claim that the gift of celibacy is a precious gift of God to the priesthood and the church: How can a gift be legislated? The church answers that if a man is called to the priesthood, God will grant him the gift of celibacy. Many priests today wonder how church leaders know this. Reading the mind of God in this matter -- in any matter of church discipline -- is risky business.

More and more Catholics today are coming to understand that celibacy as a universal law for priests had its origins in the 12th century and that during the church's first millennium, priests and bishops -- and at least thirty-nine popes -- were married.

Still, most well-read cradle Catholics are surprised to learn that St. Anastasius, pope from 399 to 401, was succeeded by his son, Pope St. Innocent I, and that a century later Pope St. Hormisdas' son, St. Silverius, also was elected to the papacy.

Even in our secular world, it's common to speak of church-based ministry as a calling, a vocation. Isn't it possible that God would call an individual to the priesthood and to the sacrament of marriage? God apparently did so for more than half the church's history. How do we know that God isn't doing so today?

For some years now I've been teaching in the religious studies department at John Carroll University in Cleveland. I've asked dozens of serious, healthy young students if they have given any thought to being a priest. They seem flattered by the question. With only one exception, each has answered, "Yes, I've thought about being a priest, but I want a family."

There are, of course, other factors, urgent and pressing, that will keep the celibacy issue alive. The Catholic priesthood is aging. The average age of active priests hovers at 60, and if retired priests are factored in, it is considerably higher. Moreover, Catholic seminaries are lucky to be half full.

Parish staffing challenges alone will press for a review of the celibacy rule. Catholic bishops simply do not have enough priests to meet the pastoral and sacramental needs of the Catholic faithful. Closing and merging parishes may offer some temporary relief for overworked priests, but the shortfall of priests will continue to challenge the vitality of Catholic parishes and the health of Catholic clergy for decades to come.

But the most human, existential factor that should keep the celibacy issue on the table is the spiritual and emotional health of priests. Celibacy really isn't the issue -- mandatory or obligatory celibacy is.

There are many priests who do possess the gift of celibacy -- it is their "truth" so to speak -- and their humanity, warmth and pastoral effectiveness give abundant evidence of their authentic celibate lives. But there remain other priests who believe deep down they are called to the priesthood but not to celibacy. And for these men, the burden of mandated celibacy threatens their spiritual and emotional well-being. The priesthood may be their "truth," but mandated celibacy wraps them in a cloak of loneliness and struggle.

I don't know Father Alberto Cutie. He appears to have touched the lives of many and preached the gospel with power and conviction. I suspect he feels called by God to be a priest, but not a celibate priest.

Surely he knows that Easter Rite Catholic priests are allowed to marry and that the church welcomes into the priesthood married convert ministers from other Christian denominations. Surely he knows that in many parts of the Catholic world, clerical celibacy is openly flouted, and church authorities choose not to notice.

I wonder if church officials understand the burden they place on the shoulders of a man who believes he is called to priestly ministry but not to celibacy. Certainly, a married priesthood will have burdens of its own and, sadly, scandals of its own -- infidelity and abuse among others. But it should be left to the individual priest and seminarian to determine whether or not he is blessed with the gift of celibacy.

A mandated "gift," after all, is really no gift at all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A case for celibacy for priests

The Rev. Robert Barron: Why does Church back practice that seems unnecessary?
He says he rejects the "marriage is spiritually suspect" defense of celibacy
But celibacy sets the priest apart as a symbol of another world, he says

The Rev. Robert Barron is Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary and author of several books, including "Eucharist," "Word on Fire: Proclaiming the Power of Christ" and "The Priority of Christ: Toward a Post-Liberal Catholicism." Barron is the director of, a global media ministry based in Chicago, Illinois. For another view on this topic, read here.

(CNN) -- The scandal surrounding the Rev. Alberto Cutie has raised questions in the minds of many concerning the Catholic Church's discipline of priestly celibacy. Why does the church continue to defend a practice that seems so unnatural and so unnecessary?

There is a very bad argument for celibacy, which has appeared throughout the tradition and which is, even today, defended by some. It goes something like this: Married life is spiritually suspect; priests, as religious leaders, should be spiritual athletes above reproach; therefore, priests shouldn't be married

This approach to the question is, in my judgment, not just stupid but dangerous, for it rests on presumptions that are repugnant to solid Christian doctrine. The biblical teaching on creation implies the essential integrity of the world and everything in it.

Genesis tells us that God found each thing he had made good and that he found the ensemble of creatures very good. Catholic theology, at its best, has always been resolutely, anti-dualist -- and this means that matter, the body, marriage and sexual activity are never, in themselves, to be despised.

But there is more to the doctrine of creation than an affirmation of the goodness of the world. To say that the finite realm in its entirety is created is to imply that nothing in the universe is God. All aspects of created reality reflect God and bear traces of the divine goodness -- just as every detail of a building gives evidence of the mind of the architect -- but no creature and no collectivity of creatures is divine, just as no part of a structure is the architect.

This distinction between God and the world is the ground for the anti-idolatry principle that is reiterated from the beginning to the end of the Bible: Do not turn something less than God into God.

Isaiah the prophet put it thus: "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts and my ways above your ways, says the Lord." And it is at the heart of the First Commandment: "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods besides me." The Bible thus holds off all the attempts of human beings to divinize or render ultimate some worldly reality. The doctrine of creation, in a word, involves both a great "yes" and a great "no" to the universe.

Now there is a behavioral concomitant to the anti-idolatry principle, and it is called detachment. Detachment is the refusal to make anything less than God the organizing principle or center of one's life.

Anthony de Mello looked at it from the other side and said "an attachment is anything in this world -- including your own life -- that you are convinced you cannot live without." Even as we reverence everything that God has made, we must let go of everything that God has made, precisely for the sake of God.

This is why, as G.K. Chesterton noted, there is a tension to Christian life. In accord with its affirmation of the world, the Church loves color, pageantry, music and rich decoration (as in the liturgy and papal ceremonials), even as, in accord with its detachment from the world, it loves the poverty of St. Francis and the simplicity of Mother Teresa.

The same tension governs its attitude toward sex and family. Again, in Chesterton's language, the Church is "fiercely for having children" (through marriage) even as it remains "fiercely against having them" (in religious celibacy).

Everything in this world -- including sex and intimate friendship -- is good, but impermanently so; all finite reality is beautiful, but its beauty, if I can put it in explicitly Catholic terms, is sacramental, not ultimate.

In the biblical narratives, when God wanted to make a certain truth vividly known to his people, he would, from time to time, choose a prophet and command him to act out that truth, to embody it concretely.

For example, he told Hosea to marry the unfaithful Gomer in order to sacramentalize God's fidelity to wavering Israel. Thus, the truth of the non-ultimacy of sex, family and worldly relationship can and should be proclaimed through words, but it will be believed only when people can see it.

This is why, the Church is convinced, God chooses certain people to be celibate. Their mission is to witness to a transcendent form of love, the way that we will love in heaven. In God's realm, we will experience a communion (bodily as well as spiritual) compared to which even the most intense forms of communion here below pale into insignificance, and celibates make this truth viscerally real for us now. Though one can present practical reasons for it, I believe that celibacy only finally makes sense in this eschatological context.

For years, the Rev. Andrew Greeley argued -- quite rightly in my view -- that the priest is fascinating and that a large part of the fascination comes from celibacy. The compelling quality of the priest is not a matter of superficial celebrity or charm. It is something much stranger, deeper, more mystical. It is the fascination for another world.