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Eric had been free all along, waiting trial in his jail cell

PORTLAND, Ore. (BP)–Smiling tentatively, Eric looked at me with dark sad eyes. He rubbed a days’ worth of stubble with weary hands softened by inactivity and swallowed his fear by taking a deep breath.
“Eric, no matter what happens, you are free. You’re free where it counts, inside here,” I pointed, tapping over my heart.
“I know,” he sighed, flashing a promising smile, “but … ,” he struggled to finish, glancing down at the blue scrub uniform and bright pink T-shirt that was standard issue. His thick dark hair curled at the corner of his forehead, and I was once again reminded of what a vulnerable, large “teddy bear” is the man I call brother.
It was March 8 of this year, and we were speaking together in a visitor’s booth at the Multnomah County Jail in downtown Portland, Ore. My 34-year-old brother, Eric Johnson, had just returned from his fourth day in court and the jury would offer their verdict the next afternoon.
That evening I was visiting the jail with my younger brother, Daniel Johnson, his wife, Helga, and their 11-month-old daughter, Johanna, from Hemet, Calif. Crowded together in a small cubicle with one short stool and a Formica counter, we faced Eric across a glass window and spoke through a single phone mounted on the wall.
Eric’s attorney, Michelle Kohler, from a respected Oregon firm, Ransom Blackman, had fought valiantly in court for a week. The evidence in the case was the word of a now-17-year old who said Eric had abused him some nine years earlier when my brother was married to the boy’s mother for two and a half years. The marriage ended in divorce.
An easy target, my brother, a single, blue-collar worker with no family in the area, had been arrested and thrown in jail to await a trial. By the time my stepfather and mother, Wayne and June Johnson from Prescott, Ariz., arrived to assist in finding an attorney, the machine that would ultimately deny Eric freedom until his trial had been set in motion by the idea that he would flee the state to avoid imprisonment.
Actually, just days prior to his arrest on July 27, 1998, Eric returned from a weeklong visit to the Czech Republic where he stayed with my sister, Ramona Steckmann, and her family who are missionaries there with CBInternational, formerly of the Portland area.
During the trial, Ramona and her husband, Joseph, and their son, 15-year-old Joseph Jr., testified about the times Eric lived with them in their Portland apartment prior to and after his brief marriage.
More than a dozen other character and fact witnesses testified on my brother’s behalf during the trial. One of his pastors, Dennis Hayes, from a community church in Portland, and other friends from the church, told of a deeply committed man whose lifelong goal was to become a Navy pilot. They all testified to my brother’s honesty, morality and decency.
The witnesses told about Eric’s work ethic, his gentleness toward his stepson and wife, and his subsequent mental breakdown after being served with divorce papers just prior to Christmas day in 1990.
Now, surrounded by family members inside and outside the jail who had gathered from all parts of the world to offer love, prayers and support, Eric gazed peacefully from the other side of the glass and occasionally nodded and smiled at my brother Daniel’s references to the celebration we would have at his release. Only moments before we had mixed our voices on the single phone line to sing soothing gospel choruses and hymns. My fear, however, was tangible as I refused to presume his release.
“You are free, no matter what happens,” I repeated, as much for Eric’s benefit as for mine. “Free in the way that matters.”
Words were unnecessary as we stared at each other, brother and sister, alone in that moment. Dark brown eyes, blending together — promising nothing, but reminding each other of the peace that only comes from knowing a great and mighty God.
Eric was earlier offered a plea bargain that would have allowed him to plead “no contest” to two of the 45 counts in two charges brought against him, with a prison term of about a three and a half years and seven years of probation. It was a moral decision to turn down the plea and face what could have been a life term in prison — in order to give the jury a chance to do the right thing and set an innocent man free. The plea, a man-sized solution to a God-sized problem, was not an option for an innocent man.
Freedom was at hand not only that night, but also the next day as the jury found Eric not guilty of all charges. The prayers of believers across the world — from Missouri to California, from Oregon to Washington and from Arizona to the Czech Republic and beyond — had surely sustained us as we agonized over our Eric’s situation.
I’ve not seen my brother since that night we spoke of freedom. My plane left the ground moments after I called from the airport and was told of the jury’s verdict.
Months before when I traveled to Portland to visit Eric, I had reflected on the “injustice” of our world and found myself staring up at the outside walls of the jail. There is a quote about justice there from Martin Luther King Jr. I laughed at the irony, but at the time was too bitter to believe that God would indeed set Eric free.
What I failed to acknowledge was that Eric had been free all along — and in the way that counts the most. That’s why he never got hostile. That’s why he never gave up hope. That’s why his look of serenity was not tainted with doubt. Thanks little brother — for teaching me.

Hannigan teaches high school English and journalism near Kansas City, Mo., where her husband, John, attends Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She was BSU director at Indiana University from 1992-96 and is a contributor to Baptist Press and other publications.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan