Former Law student says FBI pressured him to recant his claim of racial profiling

In 2011, Johnathan Perkins claimed he was harassed by U.Va. Police, but later said it was a fabricated account and faced Honor charges

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Johnathan Perkins was a Law student at the time he wrote a letter to the editor of the Virginia Law Weekly. 

Courtesy U.Va. Law School | Cavalier Daily

In the spring of 2011, Law student Johnathan Perkins wrote a letter to the editor of the Virginia Law Weekly claiming he was stopped and harassed by two University police officers late in the evening of March 31. Perkins, who is black, felt he was the victim of racial discrimination by two white officers.  

According to Perkins’ letter to the editor, the two officers confronted him on his walk home, saying he “fit the description” of a person they were searching for. He wrote that they requested identification and searched him for weapons as well as forcibly pushed him onto the police car while they rifled through his belongings. Perkins said the officers refused to give him their names or badge numbers and continued to follow him until he got to his apartment. 

The University Police subsequently opened an investigation into his claim and Perkins said the two officers in charge of the investigation were present when he was interrogated by an FBI agent about his allegations against the UPD. 

As a result of what he claims was pressure from the FBI, Perkins recanted his story and was charged and tried by the University’s Honor Committee in the summer of 2011 for lying.

Courtesy Harvard University
Johnathan Perkins recently came forward to The Cavalier Daily with his version of events surrounding his Honor trial and law enforcement's response to his claims of racial profiling by the University Police Department. 

Perkins was ultimately acquitted of the charges and, after an investigation by the Law School, received his degree. Perkins says the FBI’s involvement in the case was extensively discussed during his closed Honor trial — but never disclosed to the public. 

The Managing Board of The Cavalier Daily later released an editorial criticizing the Honor system for acquitting Perkins, writing that it “sends a devastating signal to the student body and the broader public about the notion of ‘honor’ that exists at the University.” The editorial made assumptions about why Perkins was acquitted though no details from his trial were publicly available. 

A series of responses to the editorial were published in the following days, including an op-ed by Charles Harris, a former University Law student and chair of the Honor Committee from 2010-11.

“The truth of the matter, however, is we do not know anything about the case presented at trial, and we know even less about the actions or motivations of those students on the jury,” Harris wrote. “It is possible there may have been some element that introduced a reasonable doubt into the minds of enough jurors as to whether Perkins was guilty.”

Six years later, Perkins came forward to The Cavalier Daily this past August to reveal what he says was the FBI’s involvement in the case. He also maintains his original letter to the Virginia Law Weekly is true. 

This information may have been critical to Perkins’ acquittal in his Honor trial, but, until now, remained unknown to the University community and public. 

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In an interview, Perkins said he received a voicemail from FBI Senior Supervisory Resident Agent Robert Hilland on May 5, 2011. According to a recording of the voicemail that Perkins provided to The Cavalier Daily, Hilland introduced himself as the agent in charge of the Charlottesville division. 

Perkins said he found Hilland’s business card tucked under the door of his apartment later that day, which described Hilland’s title as Senior Supervisory Resident Agent of the Richmond Division — Fredericksburg Resident Agency (RA).

Perkins said he returned Hilland’s call, during which Hilland notified Perkins he was waiting for him at his car in the Law School parking lot and wanted to speak with him. Perkins said Hilland was accompanied by two UPD officers tasked with investigating Perkins’ claim of harassment against the UPD — Capt. Melissa Fielding and Lt. Michael Blakey. 

According to Perkins, the three of them went into a meeting room in the office suite of Martha Ballenger, then Law School Assistant Dean for Students Affairs, for an interrogation. Ballenger was not present for the meeting. 

Perkins said he was studying with his friend and classmate Laurel Sakai when he received the call from the FBI. 

Sakai told The Cavalier Daily she was surprised to learn who the call was from and that Agent Hilland was waiting for him nearby. According to her, she went with Perkins to meet Hilland and the UPD officers and waited for Perkins during the interrogation.

“I kind of just remember leaving them and then, you know, since we had had a study plan, I was just sort of cognizant of the time that was passing,” Sakai said. “I still hadn’t heard anything from him … and texted him a few times, like, ‘What’s going on?’” 

According to Perkins, Hilland said the FBI had opened a civil rights investigation and he was sent to the University by the FBI’s Richmond Division.

“[Hilland] laid out a list of consequences that would occur if I stuck by my story … and then promised me that if I just simply told him that it didn’t happen, then I could be done with it and no one, no other people would have to be involved,” Perkins said.

Perkins said Hilland promised that Perkins’ family, friends, classmates and the Philadelphia law firm where he was positioned to work after graduation would be contacted.

After an interrogation that lasted over two hours, Perkins said he agreed to sign a statement on a blank piece of paper — which he says was dictated by Hilland — recanting the information he had originally set forth in his letter to the editor.

A copy of the recantation Perkins provided to The Cavalier Daily includes the date, May 5, 2011, and a time of 2:25 p.m. with the subject line “Re: Interview with Robert Hilland, Melissa Fielding, and Michael Blakey.” Perkins said the document was included in his Honor case materials.

Following Perkins’ statement that the events he described in his letter to the Virginia Law Weekly did not occur are lines reading, “This statement was not coerced. I wrote the article to bring attention to the topic of police misconduct. The events in the article did not occur.”

The bottom of the paper includes what appears to be the signatures of Hilland and Blakey as witnesses to the recantation.

Courtesy Johnathan Perkins
A copy of the recantation Perkins provided to The Cavalier Daily.

“I take full responsibility for bending to the special agent's pressure,” Perkins said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “It has been my life's greatest regret.”

In an email on Thursday, Evan Pivonka, special assistant to the Honor Committee, said the Committee cannot respond to a request for information or comment on the case. 

“The confidentiality policy of the Honor Committee prohibits any discussion of alleged Honor proceedings,” he wrote.

The Cavalier Daily has been unable to locate the original copy of the recantation. In addition to being prevented from disclosing details of a closed trial, the Honor Committee is also required to destroy its records of a proceeding if a student accused of an Honor offense is found to have not committed it. 

“All records of any potential cases and all of the original evidence would be destroyed in the case of an acquittal,” Pivonka said. “The only non-Honor ‘party’ to the case would be the hypothetical student him or herself … if he / she were to retain copies of case files, we would have no way to verify whether or not they were authentic, as the originals would have been destroyed.”

Law Prof. Josh Bowers, who taught Perkins, spoke to the stress individuals face during interrogations. 

“As a criminal procedure teacher and a former public defender, I’m well aware of the pressures that people face … when interrogated,” Bowers said. “They often feel overwhelming pressure to make the questioning stop and will say just about anything to make the questioning stop.”

After multiple phone calls from The Cavalier Daily to the Richmond Division of the FBI where Hilland currently serves as a supervisory special agent, a spokesperson from the office said in a voicemail that Hilland would not be made available for an interview. The spokesperson also said Hilland recommended reaching out to the University Police Department and specifically referenced Fielding.  

The University Police Department, Fielding and Blakey did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.

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According to Perkins’ Letter to the Editor of the Virginia Law Weekly, his original encounter with the University Police involved two officers pulling up beside him in their squad car, getting out and confronting him. Perkins wrote that the two white officers demanded identification, telling him that he matched the description of someone they were looking for.

After checking his identification and making sarcastic comments, Perkins said the officers searched him for weapons. He said an officer pushed him onto the police car and placed his hands on the rear of the vehicle. Perkins wrote that the officer then searched him, removing all belongings from his pockets, while the other went through his wallet.

Perkins said the officers refused to give their names and badge numbers when he asked for the information. After the search, he said the officers continued to follow him in their police car until he entered his apartment.

After the incident, Perkins said he spoke to his friend and fellow Law student Derrick Johnson. Johnson recalled being taken aback by what Perkins told him.

“I remember at the time just being kind of shocked about it … and also seeing how much it affected him,” Johnson said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I guess I’ve never really seen him get emotional that much … he was visibly affected by it — shocked that it happened essentially.”

Perkins also said he reached out to Law Prof. Kim Forde-Mazrui and emailed him April 1 asking to speak with him about his encounter with the UPD officers late the night before.

“We subsequently met approximately four days later, on about April 5 in the afternoon, during which he recounted the incident,” Forde-Mazrui said in a pre-trial interview conducted in the course of the Honor investigation on May 13, 2011. “I then emailed him that night suggesting he write the story. I told him it would honor his parents who were both teachers to teach the Law school community about his experience.”

Forde-Mazrui provided a personal copy of the interview transcript to The Cavalier Daily. The transcript shows Honor asked some questions specifically about the alleged role of the FBI. 

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Forde-Mazrui said Perkins reached out to him again following the interrogation.

“I was at dinner … and he wanted to come and talk to me in person, and so I said ‘Okay’ and I met him outside the restaurant,” Forde-Mazrui said. “That’s when he told me … about the FBI questioning and that … he had signed something that said that he had made up the story.”

According to Forde-Mazrui, Perkins wanted him to know the original story was true and he had not lied to him before he read news of Perkins’ recantation.

“I have interacted with Johnathan many times, and I have a pretty good intuition about when somebody’s lying,” Forde-Mazrui said. “I also had him in a small seminar that met at my house, my sense of him is he is completely truthful about all of this.”

May 6, 2011 the morning after Perkins said he was interrogated by Hilland, the University issued a press release stating Perkins’ recantation. The University explained “relevant outside agencies” assisted in the investigation but did not specifically mention the FBI’s involvement. Honor Code charges were filed against Perkins for lying shortly after.

In an email to The Cavalier Daily on Wednesday, University Spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn said the University has no additional comment on the matter.

Perkins said he received race-related criticism for his recantation.

“I was branded a liar, a race-baiter, the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ and a prime example of the

problem with Affirmative Action,” Perkins said.

Johnson reflected on how he and Perkins took classes together dealing with race and the law and how Perkins never thought he would be involved in a situation like the ones they studied in class.

“Johnathan is very aware of these types of issues — knows that they happened but just the absolute shock of it happening to him,” Johnson said. “It just seemed like he almost didn’t know what to do and had been stuck in a situation where … he had to choose between two horrible choices.”

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The Honor trial took place July 17, 2011 where the jury heard testimony from some of Perkins’ classmates, friends and professors, including Forde-Mazrui and Law Prof. Anne Coughlin, who spoke with Perkins the morning after the FBI interrogation. Fielding and Blakey also spoke against Perkins, arguing Perkins’ claim of the original incident with the UPD did not occur and the recantation was accurate.

Perkins said Fielding and Blakey claimed they had video surveillance footage that disproved Perkins’ original claim of harassment. He said they refused to produce copies of the videos upon requests from Perkins and his Honor counsel.

Perkins said the FBI’s involvement and interrogation were fully disclosed at the hearing, though the agency declined Honor’s request to be involved in the Honor proceedings.

The Cavalier Daily first reported on Perkins' acquittal on Jan. 18, 2012. 

Johnson was one of Perkins’ friends who testified. He said he spoke mainly of Perkins’ credibility.

“I’m an attorney now — I’m a public defender as well — and I did ask follow-up questions and he had all the details … I believed him,” Johnson said. “I don’t know … why even he would have been making it up when we just bumped into each other. It’s not like he arranged for us to speak, and the fact that he was on the verge of tears while telling me — people don’t fake that.”

Sakai also testified and shared the text messages she sent Perkins the day of the interrogation to show generally how long the encounter was. She also reiterated the consistency of Perkins story.

“There was never a time where I was like, ‘Oh that seems strange’ or different from what he told me the time before,” Sakai said.

When contacted for this article, Ann Marie McKenzie, who was chair of the Honor Committee during Perkins’ trial, said any information surrounding cases during her time on the Committee is confidential. Thus, McKenzie said she was unable to comment. 

The Cavalier Daily reached out to other members of the Honor Committee at the time of Perkins’ trial, but did not receive any responses.

In the months that followed Perkins’ recantation, the Academic Affairs Committee at the Law School conducted their own investigation to determine whether to grant Perkins his degree. 

According to Perkins, in mid-August, Mary Elizabeth Magill, who was vice dean of the Law School at the time and a member of the committee, received a phone call from the Office of the U.S. Attorney. The call allegedly instructed the committee to preserve any documents related to Perkins’ case because the Office of the U.S. Attorney was considering presenting the matter to a grand jury and indicting Perkins. 

Magill no longer works at the University Law School and was unable to provide official records of the call.

The Academic Affairs Committee examined all of the evidence and agreed to grant Perkins his degree in September 2011. 

The Character and Fitness Department of the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners — a board designated to evaluate applicants attempting to practice law — also conducted an investigation into Perkins’ case. They ultimately certified Perkins’ character and ability to practice law. He also passed the Pennsylvania Bar Exam, subsequently worked for two private law firms and is now employed at the Office of the General Counsel at Harvard University. 

Bowers said he believes Perkins’ acquittal at the Honor trial and his approval by the Pennsylvania Bar are testaments to his integrity.

“State bars are very, very tough,” Bowers said. “They’re very very careful, and the fact that the state bar nevertheless — upon learning all the facts — decided to admit Johnathan, signals to me that they tended to credit Johnathan over the people who say he made this up.”

Perkins’ attorney advised him to remain silent about his case — especially the FBI’s involvement — for at least five years due to the call the Academic Affairs Committee received from the Office of the U.S. Attorney. Five years was the statute of limitations period for any offense federal prosecutors may have raised against him.

“I am at a place in my career where … I feel more comfortable speaking truth to power and the kind of law enforcement infrastructure that is in play which nearly ruined my career the last time I did it,” Perkins said.

Daniel Watkins, a Law classmate of Perkins’ who served as a witness in the 2011 Honor trial, said he believes that Perkins’ decision to speak out now is unwise. Watkins currently works as an attorney at Clare Locke LLP in Alexandria, Va. and has taken on police brutality cases before. 

“I think it’s a huge mistake,” Watkins said. “I understand why he wants to, and as his friend I support his decision, but I think that when it comes to issues related to police misconduct, and you speak publicly about it, then you open yourself up to attack. And a lot of times, you open yourself up to unfair attack.”

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Perkins said he has since gathered information that has led him to believe FBI agent Hilland fabricated the civil rights investigation he gave as grounds to interrogate Perkins. Perkins recently sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI regarding his case but received no documents.

“Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System,” the FBI’s response dated Aug. 28, 2017 stated. “We were unable to identify main file records responsive to the FOIA.”

The time required to preserve records within the FBI depends on the content and type of record, among other factors. A FOIA response would include whether records were either destroyed or archived. If a FOIA response does not return any records and does not state the records in question were destroyed or archived, it means a search was conducted and no related records were found.

Perkins has also previously sought verification of the investigation conducted by the UPD concerning his claim against the UPD. He said UPD informed him in 2011 it did not possess a file on his case. In 2014, he submitted a FOIA request to the University that did not yield any documents substantively related to his case.

Perkins said he believes the UPD involved the FBI under a false civil rights complaint to suppress the situation.

“I strongly suspect that the FBI was brought in by the U.Va. Police to apply pressure on me in order to obtain a public, police-friendly resolution to the U.Va. Police Department's high-profile self-investigation,” Perkins said. “A public recantation of my allegations provided that perfect resolution.”

Forde-Mazrui also said he believed there were irregularities in the way the FBI treated its interrogation of Perkins.

“When I look at what the FBI did, it just, it certainly didn’t help their case because there was nothing about the interrogation that was designed to either corroborate Johnathan’s account or find him to be not telling the truth,” Forde-Mazrui said. “So it was evident to me that the FBI had a predetermined mission to get Johnathan to recant the statement, and that’s strange to me.”

Bowers said he is unable to accuse agent Hilland of wrongdoing, because he was not present for the interrogation. He instead acknowledged the inherent pressure of interrogations and how they can easily be handled improperly.

“He may very well have believed that Johnathan made this up, and he may very well have done what he was trained to do to resolve the situation,” Bowers said. “But, just because someone has not behaved immorally, unethically or unprofessionally, doesn’t mean they got it right.” 

Perkins said he is speaking out now about the entire story for two reasons — the desire to take full responsibility for giving in to the FBI’s tactics and to speak truth to power. He also said he is aware of the potential repercussions.

“I have since been afraid to speak, for fear of more ridicule from the media, professional scorn or even retaliation from law enforcement and the federal government,” Perkins said. “I’m still afraid. I’m sure there will be consequences for speaking out again. But starting today, I won’t let that fear control me.”

Eliza Haverstock assisted in the reporting of this article.

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