ONLY ON ABC7NEWS.COM: Army veteran cleared in self-defense shooting claims abuse at Santa Clara County Jail

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- A United States Army Special Operations veteran who's been cleared of attempted murder charges is now suing Santa Clara County for the treatment he received during three years in jail while awaiting trial. It's a story you'll see only on ABC7.

"They told my cellmate to lay on his stomach and face the wall so he couldn't watch what they were about to do to me," said Drew Johnson.

The veteran is now raising some important social justice issues that are already part of a class action lawsuit.

RELATED: Former Santa Clara County Jail inmate speaks out about alleged beating

Santa Clara County faces a class action lawsuit over the use of solitary confinement for people awaiting trial; they're "innocent until proven guilty". Johnson, however, says he suffered brutal treatment in jail, before a jury cleared him of any wrongdoing.

The 29-year-old moved to San Jose after serving in the Army to care for his buddy, a fellow soldier, who was paralyzed in a rollover crash in Afghanistan.

"This was my best friend who I went through the military with and went through the struggles of the service with," Johnson told Dan Noyes. "And, you know, now he's hurt."

RELATED: 3 former correctional officers convicted of killing Santa Clara County inmate sentenced 15 years to life

Johnson was caring for his friend and attending college until one October night in 2014.

His civil rights lawsuit against Santa Clara County paints the picture -- he was walking back from the store when "two drunk men try to rob him" along Capitol Expressway and "brandished a knife". With his back to traffic, Johnson tells ABC7 he had no choice but to pull his 40-caliber Glock and fire two warning shots into the ground. But the complaint says the men kept coming, so Johnson shot one in the leg, the other in the hip.

"If I wanted to kill them, I very well could have," said Johnson. "And I know what a kill shot is from the military."

It took a jury only two hours to clear Johnson of attempted murder charges. Now, he's suing Santa Clara County for placing him in solitary confinement for 16 months out of the three years he spent in jail awaiting trial. Johnson tells us he never knew why the jail sent him to solitary, starting the day he arrived.

"They never explained anything to me, they never, I never even got a rule book," Johnson told Dan Noyes. "I didn't know anything, all I knew was that I was locked down for 47 hours at a time and I got one hour out of my cell in 48 hours."

After what they tell us were hundreds of complaints from inmates, Berkeley's Prison Law Office filed this class action lawsuit over solitary confinement in 2015, accusing the county of:

  • "Inhumane conditions" in its jails

  • "Subjecting individuals to serious psychological and physiological harm"

  • "Including anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, paranoia, agitation, and suicidal ideation"

Lawyers involved in the class action tell Dan Noyes it's close to settling, and that the county has made progress in the past few years, reducing the use of solitary confinement.

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith who runs the jails declined an interview about the class action or Drew Johnson's lawsuit, saying through a spokesman that her "personnel have worked tirelessly to implement a progressive set of jail reforms."

Johnson's lawsuit also makes a startling claim -- that when he complained about all that time in solitary, guards beat him.

"They immediately cuffed me," said Johnson. "As soon as I was cuffed that's when they began to, you know, they beat me up."

RELATED: Corrections officer sees increase in assaults after conviction in jail beating case

Johnson's lawyer has filed several other lawsuits alleging Santa Clara County Sheriff's deputies mistreat inmates -- some of the cases involve video of the altercations.

His lawsuit says Johnson tried to warn jail officials about one guard who would "sadistically and maliciously abuse" prisoners: "I'm the one who wrote a grievance on Lubrin saying that if you don't stop this guy, he's gonna kill someone."

His lawyer says, just one month after Johnson filed that grievance, Officer Jereh Lubrin and two other guards beat a mentally-ill inmate, Michael Tyree, to death. The officers were convicted of second degree murder.

RELATED: Bay Area's first female sheriff faces complaints of past sexual harassment

Attorney Bob Powell tells us the problems inside Santa Clara County jails run deep.

"Someone doesn't get killed in the jail in this kind of a fashion overnight, that is not just a one-off event. That is a something has been going on for a long time to lead to the point where someone is murdered by physical punishment in a jail."

Drew Johnson is back in college full time, and there's one other piece of video we'd like you to see. Him dancing with his daughter. She's now 7 years old. Johnson tells Dan Noyes he was thrilled to walk her to the first day of school last week. He's making up for a lost three years.

Take a look at the latest stories and videos by Dan Noyes and the I-Team here.
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