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A podcast raises questions about the death of a young Black athlete in Mississippi

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On a cold December morning in 2008, a young Black man by the name of Billey Joe Johnson died during a traffic stop with a white sheriff's deputy in Lucedale, Miss. First, authorities decided his death was a suicide. Then they ruled it as an accident. They said somehow Billey Joe Johnson shot himself accidentally with his own shotgun. But a new investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting sheds light on that ruling that many in this Mississippi town never really believed anyway. That reporting forms the basis for the new seven-part podcast "Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad Of Billey Joe." Host Al Letson joins us now to talk about the series. Welcome.

AL LETSON: Thank you. Good to be here.

CHANG: Good to have you. So can you just start us off by telling us the story of how you came to learn about Billey Joe Johnson's case?

LETSON: Yeah. So many years ago, me and my producer Tina Antolini, we were in Mississippi reporting on the Gulf Coast oil spill, and pretty much everybody that we talked to brought up this case about Billey Joe Johnson, who had passed away at that point, like, two or three years prior. I had a really strange experience when I was reporting in Mississippi. The producer I was with, Tina, is white, and I'm Black, and a lot of times we would interview people, and they wouldn't look at me or talk to me; they would just talk to Tina, specifically if we were interviewing white people. And so when I saw all these Black people talking about Billey Joe and the fact that nobody was listening to them, I understood exactly what they were saying. And I think that that's part of the reason why the case stuck with me.

CHANG: And tell us more about who Billey Joe Johnson was.

LETSON: Yeah, I would say that, like, you know, Billey Joe was just - as an athlete, he was tremendously gifted.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")

LARRY SHIRLEY: Tailback Billey Joe Johnson has rushed for nearly 3,000 yards in his first two years on the varsity squad.

LETSON: Larry Shirley was the play-by-play announcer for the local radio station.

SHIRLEY: When you put the film in slow motion, everybody looks like they're running in slow motion except one guy. And that would be Billey Joe. He would look like normal speed.

LETSON: But beyond that, you know, he was a son. He was a brother. He loved his community. He volunteered. He worked with kids. But also, he was a 17-year-old. You know, he had ups and downs, just like everybody. You know, some of his coaches said that he could be moody at times, you know, especially if they lost. He was a fierce competitor. You know, he was just a good kid trying to make his way.

CHANG: Well, as you say, you learned about this story several years ago, and you eventually went back to Mississippi to investigate Billey Joe Johnson's case. And I want to start with that very early morning in 2008. Why does Billey Joe end up getting pulled over?

LETSON: Sure. The official story says that Billey Joe got up early in the morning. He told his parents that he was going hunting, but he ended up going to his ex-girlfriend's house. He bangs on the door. She thinks that somebody's trying to break in, calls the police, and when Billey Joe hears the sirens, he leaves. And then another officer sees Billey Joe run a light. That officer pulls him over in the parking lot of a carpet store. According to the officer, Billey Joe gets out of his vehicle, hands him his license and registration. The officer then goes to his vehicle, looks down to read the license and registration. He hears a shot. He looks up, and Billey Joe Johnson is on the ground with a shotgun laying on his legs.

CHANG: And at first, the official story is that Billey Joe Johnson had killed himself. But for those people who knew Billey Joe Johnson very, very well, why was it very hard for them to buy that conclusion?

LETSON: Yeah, I think that everybody who knew him saw that, like, his future was bright. The day he died, that night he was going to receive an award. He had plans for that weekend. He was being recruited by Auburn. He was getting ready to announce that he was going to Auburn. No one thought that he was depressed. So the idea that he killed himself, I think, is just really hard for a lot of people to swallow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAMN")

LETSON: His father remembers Billey Joe as a country boy. He loved riding horses, playing around on his four-wheeler and hunting, which Billey Joe Sr. says was always a part of his family's life.

BILLEY JOE JOHNSON SR: Well, when I went hunting, I went out there to get supper (laughter). Whatever I'd see then, that's what I'm going to kill. And, you know, I raised all of my kids when they were little till they get grown, you know, big enough where they can get on the stand by they self. I had them all right on the side of me the whole time when they was hunting.

LETSON: Billey Joe Sr. says his son knew how to safely handle a shotgun and was an avid hunter.

CHANG: Well, you were able to actually talk to the lead investigator on this case. And I don't want to spoil the next episode, but can you tell us something about what he said to you when you interviewed him? Give us a bit of a teaser.

LETSON: Yeah, I would say when it comes to this case, everything about it is complicated. When I went in to interview Special Agent Joel Wallace, I don't know what I was expecting, but I was not expecting what I got, which was a man of integrity who thought that he did the best he could possibly do for Billey Joe Johnson and his family. I think that he had no idea that the Department of Justice had come two years later and looked at his work and made different conclusions. And when he heard these things, plus other evidence that we found, he began to rethink the case and look at it in different eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")

JOEL WALLACE: If somebody had told me that, I would have marched right to Tony Lawrence's office, the district attorney, and would have said, hey, we need to reopen this case. We need to look at this. Where are they coming up with this conclusion at? If somebody showed me that DOJ report or told me something like that, that's what we would have done. Because nobody - I'm telling you, nobody - I'll go to my grave. Nobody told me this until today when I talked to you earlier, and twice just now you done sat here and told me that.

CHANG: You make it very clear in this podcast that as you are reporting this story, you point out that you are Black and the person co-reporting with you is white, and you say that you're pointing this out not because you're in Mississippi but simply because you're in the U.S. Can you explain why you felt that was important?

LETSON: Yeah. I think that it's important to point out that, like, No. 1, this story is all about race. What we're trying to do is understand the systems that come into play with Billey Joe Johnson's life and his death. And also, you know, I think that when we looked at the investigation, there was a big hole in the investigation, and that hole was the size of Billey Joe's family. Like, they've totally been left out. And what I wanted to do is I wanted to put the family and Billey Joe front and center. But also, I think that, you know, a case like this that, like, is filled with race and these stories that we hear that pop up all over the country that happens all the time with, you know, Black people and law enforcement, we never get to tell those stories in the full context, right? And I think the fact that I am a Black man, you know, like, I bring all my experiences into reporting like this. And so for me, it's like, I want to tell this story, but I want you to understand exactly where I'm coming from. So for us, it was important to talk about it upfront, to not run from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "MISSISSIPPI")

CHANG: Al Letson is host of the investigative public radio show and podcast "Reveal." His new podcast is called "Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad Of Billey Joe." Thank you so much for joining us.

LETSON: Thank you for having me. This has been great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Every step of the way, we walk the line. Your days are numbered. So are mine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.