Billey Joe Johnson Jr. dreamed of graduating high school, going to college and one day playing pro football. On a cold December morning in 2008, that future was shattered. His story is a reckoning of justice in America.
Billey Joe Johnson’s family has lived with suspicion and doubt since authorities first told them he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound during a traffic stop with a White sheriff’s deputy. They never believed law enforcement thoroughly investigated what happened. While on a reporting trip 10 years ago, Reveal host Al Letson made a promise: to investigate his death and pursue the Johnsons’ unanswered questions.
On the morning of Billey Joe Johnson’s death, crime scene tape separates the Johnsons from their son’s body. Their shaky faith in the criminal justice system buckles as authorities fail to follow up on inconsistencies in the official story.
The Missisissippi medical examiner’s office is a “mess” when Billey Joe Johnson dies. There’s no state medical examiner, and Mississippi outsources Johnson’s autopsy to a group from Tennessee. The pathologist who conducts his autopsy comes to one conclusion; the U.S. Department of Justice comes to another.
Special Agent Joel Wallace, a Black detective with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, works with the George County district attorney’s office questioning witnesses and reviewing evidence. When he finds out what Reveal has uncovered, he begins to wonder whether the case should be reopened.
Billey Joe Johnson was a Black boy dating a White girl. And that made the story behind his death even more complicated.
Billey Joe’s friends say he was pulled over by police dozens of times. Community members had accused police of racially profiling Black people. So when Billey Joe died, questions were raised about police interactions with him.
The final episode of Mississippi Goddam shares new revelations that cast doubt on the official story that Billey Joe Johnson accidentally killed himself.
Dig into crucial investigation documents and files about the death of Billey Joe Johnson Jr.
Original music for the podcast is by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. Listen to the soundtrack on Bandcamp.
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Host and series reporter
Al Letson is an accomplished playwright, screenwriter and journalist. As a journalist, he’s been awarded three Peabodys and an Emmy. His theater work has appeared Off-Broadway and on stages across the country. Letson has worked on several TV projects with various networks, including AMC and Hulu. He continues to write, develop and tell new stories for both broadcast and live audiences. Letson first learned about Billey Joe Johnson’s death in 2011 and has worked to tell his story since then.
Jonathan Jones is an investigative reporter and producer for Reveal and the lead investigative reporter for Mississippi Goddam. He has reported on death investigation systems, flawed forensic science, criminal justice and the wrongly convicted. His investigation into Firestone’s operations during the Liberian civil war for ProPublica and PBS Frontline won Emmy Awards for outstanding investigative journalism and outstanding research.
Series editor and executive producer
Kevin Sullivan is Reveal’s executive producer. In 2018, he launched an initiative to develop serial projects at Reveal, which resulted in 2020’s award-winning American Rehab and now Mississippi Goddam. Under his leadership, Reveal has grown to air on more than 570 stations and has garnered top journalism honors, including multiple Peabody, duPont, Edward R. Murrow and Third Coast awards.
Michael I Schiller
Michael I Schiller is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His award-winning work spans animation, radio and documentary film. “The Dead Unknown,” a series he directed about the crisis of America’s unidentified dead, earned a national News and Documentary Emmy Award, a national Edward R. Murrow Award and national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award.
Jim Briggs III
Senior sound designer, engineer and composer
Jim Briggs III is one half of the team behind Mississippi Goddam’s music and intimate sound design. He has guided Reveal to numerous accolades and a signature sound including original scoring and data sonification. Mix credits include “99% Invisible,” “Marketplace,” “Radiolab” and several PBS television documentaries. A winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in sound, Briggs records ambient and psychedelic music under the name Decoded Forests.
Sound designer, engineer and composer
Fernando Arruda has been mixing and making original soundtracks for Reveal since 2018 alongside Jim Briggs. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with awards, including Peabody, duPont, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Arruda lives in Oakland, California, with his wife.
Steven Rascón produced and mixed stories for Mississippi Goddam. He also contributed to research. He assists the radio production team for Reveal’s weekly public radio show and podcast. His reporting has aired on KCRW, KQED and Capital Public Radio. He’s pursuing a master’s degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Interim editor in chief and managing editor
Sumi Aggarwal oversees Reveal’s editorial operations, as well as partnerships with other newsrooms. She assisted with launching Mississippi Goddam. Prior to joining Reveal, she was a producer at CBS News’ “60 Minutes” and worked at the “Today” show and Google. She is the recipient of numerous journalism awards, including several Emmys, duPont and RFK awards, and many others.
Amy Mostafa is Reveal’s production manager for the weekly broadcast show, podcast, and serials. Mostafa helped launch Mississippi Goddam across newsroom platforms and has worked on Reveal’s award winning first serial American Rehab. Mostafa’s audio reporting and production work has appeared nationally and across NPR affiliates KQED, KALW, and AKPM. Most recently, she has reported on health equity with a focus on aging and housing.
Series digital editor: Nina Martin
Executive editor: Andy Donohue
Production manager: Amy Mostafa
Digital producer: Sarah Mirk
Fact checker: Rosemarie Ho
Reporting and producing help: Ko Bragg, Melissa Lewis, Michael Montgomery and Laurel Hennen Vigil
Additional Mixing and Sound Design: Original score and sound design assistance from Claire Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra
Interim CEO: Annie Chabel
Interim editor in chief: Sumi Aggarwal
Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to the Nina Simone estate and Music and Strategy. News and sports footage of Billey Joe Johnson courtesy of Gray Media Group Inc., WLOX-TV.Series photos by Imani Khayyam. Logo design by Joan Wong.
Special thanks: Katharine Mieszowski, Alexis Hightower, Jen Chien, Esther Kaplan and Christa Scharfenberg