Can pie throwing be considered a protected form of speech? Will Kevin Johnson be asked, for the first time ever, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his seamy side, so help him God? Will Michelle Rhee get cross-examined—or even examined?
Getting the answers to those questions will be among the reasons folks who’ve followed the never-ending soap opera of Johnson, the ex-NBA superstar turned disgraced (and now former) mayor of Sacramento, are excited about the upcoming trial of Sean Thompson, the man who hit Johnson with a pie at a fall charity gala, then took a beating from the pied politico. Thompson was charged with counts of assaulting a public official, a felony, and committing assault on school grounds, a misdemeanor. At a hearing last week in Sacramento Superior Court, a judge confirmed that the trial will indeed start on April 19. The court has set aside two weeks, a huge amount of time for a typical assault case. But nobody expects this trial to proceed typically.
The case puts Johnson back in the spotlight for the first time since he left office late last year. His eight-year run as the chief executive of his hometown were a scandal-plagued media circus, but Johnson’s been invisible. He doesn’t even tweet anymore, and the only attention anybody paid to him this year came when he took a part-time job with a major sports agency and when voters for the basketball Hall of Fame again rejected him. The same scandals and sexual-abuse accusations that drove Johnson out of politics and got ESPN to shelve a fawning documentary about his efforts to keep the Sacramento Kings from leaving town likely wounded his bid to gain enshrinement. And there’s a fine chance his darker chapters will be brought up in court.
The facts of this case aren’t in much dispute: Everybody agrees that Johnson’s face collided with Thompson’s coconut cream pie during a fall fundraiser for Johnson’s St. HOPE chain of charter schools, and that Thompson’s head then quickly came in contact with lots and lots of fists, including Johnson’s and others belonging to the mayor’s security detail. Jailhouse photos of Thompson, who was arrested on the scene, show cuts and scrapes all over his face, some needing stitches.
No video evidence of the pieing has ever been made public. But Deadspin has obtained a copy of a video shot by a witness that shows how bizarre the incident seemed to partygoers. The clip starts as members of Johnson’s security detail are on top of Thompson. An offscreen narrator, after saying that from the way the encounter began she initially assumed Thompson and Johnson “were friends,” describes the action she’d just witnessed: “[Thompson] walked up to [Johnson] as if he were to know him and tapped him on the shoulder very lightly, again as if he knew him and were going to say hi, and then pied him in the face and that was it. When the reaction came I was like, ‘Oh, that that’s not a friend!’”
“That was not a good reaction on his part because it’s going to be all over the news tomorrow or tonight,” another witness responds. “He should have just walked away.”
As the camera pans away from the gaggle of folks restraining Thompson, Johnson can be seen walking around in the background wiping what appears to be coconut cream from the side of his head. Michelle Rhee, the school-privatization activist and his wife, is beside him.
Another party-goer shows up on the video and says, “I wanna break in my new cowboy boots on that little mofo!”
Thompson, the little mofo in question, has been estimated to be 5’7”, 130 pounds. During his playing career, Johnson was listed at 6’1”, 190 pounds, but he’s bulked up considerably in retirement.
Deadspin also obtained a copy of a report written up by the Sacramento Police for the DA’s office about the St. HOPE brouhaha. In it, a detective says Johnson, who was not charged for punching Thompson after the pieing, called the police a day later to claim he had “minor whip lash (sic) which he attributed to being struck by [Thompson] with the pie,” and also asserted his “right groin was strained” during the subsequent “struggle to subdue” Thompson.
A Sacramento source with ties to the investigation said Johnson having called the police to say he was injured could help him if civil suits are filed against him for beating up the pie thrower. “The report of him calling in the next day about his ‘injuries’ is hilarious,” says the source. “He’s clearly trying to cover his ass in a civil suit.”
Johnson did not respond to requests for comment left with Independent Sports and Entertainment, the sports agency that recently hired him.
Claire White, the attorney representing Thompson, admits that her client will likely sue the former mayor for his actions. She asserts that political and social activists in the U.S. have been pieing public figures for a long time, and says Thompson weaponized the pie to make a political statement about how Johnson was running the city and had no intention of inflicting physical pain on anybody. White says she intends to present what her client regards as blotches on Johnson’s record as mayor, along with other unseemly chapters from Johnson’s past, as possible justification for the pieing. Among the topics that she thinks are fair game as testimony fodder: the treatment of the homeless in Sacramento during Johnson’s tenure; Johnson’s steering hundreds of millions of public dollars to build a sports arena; and myriad sexual abuse allegations lodged against him through the years.
Various criminal defense attorneys consulted by Deadspin said there is no legal precedent for beating a pie-throwing rap based on a First Amendment defense.
White says the District Attorney’s office has not honored several of her document requests, including a list of potential prosecution witnesses the state will call. But she says Anthony Ortiz, the lead prosecutor on the case, has told her the state is not planning on putting Johnson on the stand.
In a typical assault trial involving adults, the victim would be called by the prosecution to testify about whatever harm came his or her way. If the prosecution sticks to this plan to keep Johnson from testifying come trial time, White says, she will subpoena him as a witness for the defense. She predicts that Johnson, given his past and potential civil and even criminal liability he could face for his role in injuring Thompson during the melee, won’t make it easy to get him under oath.
“Makes for a beautiful trial theme if he’s successfully able to duck my subpoena: ‘Kevin Johnson, the man who doesn’t show up.’ It’s the same reason Sean pied him,” she says. “KJ is a man who neglects his responsibilities.”
Also on the witnesses list that the defense presented to the court: Michelle Rhee, most recently in the public eye for getting beat out by Betsy DeVos in the sweepstakes to be Secretary of Education in President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
Shelly Orio, spokesperson for the Sacramento DA’s office, politely declined to respond to questions about the Thompson matter or the prosecution’s strategy. “We will not comment on a pending case,” Orio says.
White concedes that Thompson was offered a chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor to avoid a trial, but adds the district attorney didn’t make any guarantees of leniency come sentencing. So Thompson rejected the plea bargain and asked for his day in court. White says he’s not going to waste the opportunity.
“Sean turned [the plea deal] down in favor of a trial,” White says. “He wants the community to be the judge.”
After the incident, Johnson received lots of public support for his aggressive physical retaliation against Thompson.
But the pie thrower has his backers, too. Sacramento’s social-activist community was already familiar with Thompson from his work on the Occupy protests and in demonstrations to push the city to do more for the local homeless population. His pie-throwing has only enhanced his reputation. His $100,000 bail—a hefty amount for an assault charge—was posted by a stranger; and White, like Thompson a U.S. Air Force veteran, took the case pro bono. Supporters have pledged to attend the trial wearing “The People’s Pie” t-shirts.
In other words, the circus that Sacramentans thought they’d seen the last of when Johnson left office is about to come back to town.
“If they want to continue forward with a felony,” White says, “it’s gonna be painful.”