Originally created 12/19/97

Plea, probation end 4-year-old Folly Beach drowning case



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- A Charleston man charged in the 1993 drowning deaths of his two sons in rough surf off Folly Beach was sentenced Thursday to 18 months probation and 150 hours of community service.

Circuit Judge Victor Rawl issued the sentence after Martin Johnson, 34, entered an Alford plea to two counts of involuntary manslaughter. In an Alford plea, a defendant concedes prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him but does not admit guilt.

Johnson originally was charged with involuntary manslaughter and homicide by child abuse.

Seven-year-old Jared Johnson and his 5-year-old brother Danez drowned in rough surf the night of Aug. 5, 1993. Jared's body was found a week later in Charleston Harbor; his brother's body never was found.

"I'd like to thank God for basically giving me strength," Johnson told the court as he fought back tears. "It has been hard. It is still hard."

His attorney, Akim Anastopoulo, told the court Johnson had been in town only a few months with the Air Force at the time of the drownings and never had been warned of sometimes-rough conditions at Folly Beach.

He said Johnson, a minister's son who won numerous awards in high school and in the Air Force, had sole custody of his sons for two years before the deaths.

"He did everything for those children," Anastopoulo said. "Anytime the children had the slightest cough or runny nose, Martin Johnson took them to the doctor."

He said Johnson, who now works in a local clothing store, promised his sons he would take them to the beach. When he came home from work late, they still were waiting to go with bathing suits on and towels ready, he said.

"Mr. Johnson broke no law. He just went to the beach with his children which is not against the law," he said. "When a rip tide occurs, there is nothing a person can do."

Angela Johnson, Johnson's ex-wife who now lives in California, wrote a letter to the court asking Johnson be sentenced to the full three years in prison on both counts.

"When does justice take place?" she wrote.

Solicitor David Schwacke said the case took so long to resolve because it was referred to panels of judges and prosecutors as part of a state program studying alternatives to incarceration.

A report submitted by the review team also recommended probation for a period to be determined by the court and community service, perhaps with the local rescue squad.

Rawl said he would prefer that Johnson be required speak to a group called Compassionate Friends, a support group for families who have lost children while the children were under adult supervision.