In his cluttered office in Jonesboro — “a working lawyer’s office,” he said with a smile — Bobby McDaniel keeps an assortment of trigger locks. Some of them still have the tags on them; most cost less than ten bucks. These days, he said, sliding one of the locks apart to show how quickly it can be removed, most gun manufacturers include a trigger lock with every gun they sell. He’d like to think he had something to do with that.
On Nov. 11, McDaniel’s decade-long effort to depose Andrew Golden and make public his sworn account was delayed yet again, when Craighead County Circuit Court Judge David Burnett ruled that Golden’s deposition must be kept private at least until McDaniel’s civil suit against Golden is decided. In addition, the judge ordered lawyers in the case not to reveal information about Golden, including the time, date and location of his deposition, the name he now lives under, the school he attends or his employer.
Though McDaniel said he respectfully disagrees with Burnett’s decision, he refuses to call the ruling a setback. “It was a mixed bag realistically,” McDaniel said. “The defense was trying to keep me from taking his deposition, which, we prevailed on that. Then they wanted to try and limit me from getting information from him in certain areas, and we prevailed on that. They wanted to prevent me from getting phone records from the mother and getting detailed information from her, and we prevailed on that. So we won all the real substantive issues that really go to the details and the facts of what happened; where’s he’s been, what’s he’s done since his release, et cetera.”
By this point in the case, McDaniel’s got to feel like he’s coming to the end of a very long, very dark tunnel. Born and raised in Jonesboro, he said he was as horrified as everyone else in town when he heard about the shootings at the quiet middle school on the edge of town. Within weeks of the Westside shootings, McDaniel filed civil lawsuits against the boys, their parents, Andrew Golden’s grandfather Doug Golden, and Remington Arms, among others, on behalf of families of those killed.
“I thought that in my own little way, I could do something that would give [the victims] some sense of justice in all this,” McDaniel said. “The prosecutors did all they could do, and did a great job. But the law tied their hands at the time … I felt that something had to be done from the civil side. The criminal justice system had a loophole that allowed these mass murderers to go free after a short period of time. The families approached me, and I wanted to do what I could for them to see if we could accomplish something, to try and find out what good could possibly come from this.”
Though the suits against the gun makers and Doug Golden were eventually dismissed, McDaniel sees that loss as a de facto win. “Frankly,” he said, “even though the judge dismissed that case, we won that case. Now, when anybody goes and buys a new gun, guess what? It’s got a trigger lock on it. So it’s hard for somebody to tell me we lost that case.”
He continued the lawsuit against the shooters — even though both are penniless — because he hopes for a judgment that would prevent them from ever profiting from the crime.
As for the rest of the battle, McDaniel said the factor that put the case in “virtual limbo” for almost a decade was that Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson disappeared down the rabbit hole of the juvenile justice system soon after their arrest, their anonymity so well guarded that even law enforcement officials in Jonesboro weren’t told where they were being held. Even more frustrating for McDaniel was the knowledge that on their 21st birthdays, Golden and Johnson were released with a clean slate, free to live their lives, vote, and legally buy a gun. McDaniel calls that disgusting.
“It’s obscene that when these guys reached the age of 21 and were released from federal custody, I couldn’t find out where they were, the victims couldn’t find out where they were,” he said. “How do we know those guys weren’t sitting in federal custody steaming and stewing and wanting to go finish the job they started in spite of their promises of rehabilitation? Don’t you think the parents of some of those kids who were wounded would want to know Mitchell Johnson got out of federal custody on such and such a date and such and such a location and here’s a current picture of him? That’s just wrong that they get that level of protection and the victims get no protection.”
While Mitchell Johnson wasn’t too hard to locate after his release — he was living under his own name in Washington County, and was arrested for possession of marijuana and a gun on Jan. 1, 2007 — it took investigators working for McDaniel more than a year to find Andrew Golden.
“I had process servers looking for him in Craighead County and various places,” he said. “I had deputy sheriffs searching for him in counties where we understood his mother lived. We finally got a tip that he was going under an assumed name, and we found him and served him under that assumed name. He was in the state of Arkansas, but at this time, I just don’t feel comfortable divulging the specifics of where he was or what assumed name he was going under. The court basically has his privacy under review, so I’m going to honor that.”
McDaniel said that he could neither confirm nor deny a series of anonymous postings on-line that purport to reveal the name Golden is currently using and the Arkansas college he is said to attend. McDaniel also said that he did not feel comfortable giving even a ballpark idea of when Golden might eventually be deposed, though he said the deposition would be videotaped and that it would be scheduled “with all possible haste.”
Though Judge Burnett’s recent ruling protects Golden’s privacy for the time being, McDaniel said Golden’s testimony will eventually see the light of day. “It’ll either come out at a public trial, which is open to all,” McDaniel said, “or it will come out when the case is either settled or resolved and over with. At that point, I’ll be able to release whatever I want to.”
Though he has spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing the suits against Golden and Johnson, McDaniel said that the prospect of forcing the killers to speak openly and honestly about what happened that spring morning in 1998 is reward enough. Maybe, someday, he said, a psychologist can use the tapes of the depositions to find out how to keep other children from doing what Golden and Johnson did. It is, McDaniel said, one of the real luxuries of being an attorney: the rare chance to act as a “social architect” — to make something good come from tragedy.
“What do I expect to gain from this?” McDaniel said. “Nothing. These boys don’t have any money and that’s all you can get in a civil suit. Do I expect them to ever have any money? No. Is it costing me a lot of time and money to do this? Yes. Has it cost me a lot of criticism? Yes. But some things you do just because it’s the right thing to do. … I intend to explore and find out what happened. These families are entitled to know what happened and why.”