PANAMA CITY — Ronnie Lee Johnson told jurors Wednesday what it feels like to be shot eight times.
“My whole body was on fire,” Johnson said. “It’s the worst pain I ever felt in my life.”
Johnson, 26, is suing three police officers — Nicholas Van Strander, Ryan Robbins and Manny Gonzalez — in Federal court. He is claiming the officers, who were part of a unit comprised of Panama City Police and Bay County Sheriff’s deputies, used excessive force and violated his civil rights when they shot him shortly after a drug transaction on March 10, 2006.
Johnson ultimately pleaded no contest to felony charges stemming from the incident, including aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude and aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer. He is still in prison and scheduled to be released in 2013. However, from prison Johnson filed multiple complaints against the police agencies and the officers involved.
The officers say that Johnson tried to escape a blockade by driving straight at and nearly killing Sgt. John Fortune. Van Strander, whose view of Fortune was partially blocked by a vehicle, told jurors that when he fired his gun at Johnson he believed Fortune had already been killed.
“In my mind, he had just killed a police officer,” Van Strander said. “If he had just killed a police officer, then God knows what he would do to anybody else in the area.”
Several other officers with different views of the scene also believed that Fortune had been struck by Johnson’s Dodge Stratus or crushed between the Stratus and another vehicle. However, Fortune was not injured in the incident and has since retired from the Panama City Police Department. Fortune, who is not a defendant in the case, also fired his gun at Johnson.
Johnson testified that he never aimed his car at anyone and that he did not realize the men surrounding him were police officers. He believed that they were trying to rob him. The officers told jurors that they had turned on the blue lights on their unmarked vehicles and that they identified themselves to Johnson but Johnson said that is not true.
After he was shot, Johnson said he blacked out and only regained consciousness when his car hit a tree and he was knocked into the passenger seat by the driver’s side air bag. He tried to get up and run but his body would not cooperate, Johnson said, adding that he vomited blood. The officers surrounded him again and told him to get out of the vehicle but he told them he could not move. They then pulled him out of the car and threw him to the ground, he said.
“I said, ‘Why did you shoot me?’ ” Johnson recalled. “They said, ‘Why did you try to run me over?’ ”
Johnson added that he had another intense exchange with medical workers in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
“Please don’t let me die,” he repeated to the emergency medical technician. “Please don’t let me die.”
He added that he spent nine days in the hospital and still has a bullet lodged near his spine. As a result of the shooting, he has back problems, difficulty using his right hand and consistent pain.
He is asking for millions in punitive and compensatory damages. The trial is expected to continue today.