Why has an innocent man spent almost 20 years of his life in jail?
In the early morning on December 15, 1995 Tarajay Williams was murdered by shotgun blast to the chest in an alley in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Initially, Lorenzo Johnson was accused only of allegedly being near the alley where the murder took place. However, he was soon found guilty of first-degree murder at the age of 22.
Lorenzo Johnson and and co-defendant Corey Walker were convicted of first degree murder and criminal conspiracy to commit murder, sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment on the murder conviction, and concurrent five to ten years on conspiracy conviction.
In March 1997, Johnson filed post‑trial JNOV motion on insufficient evidence and verdict-against-weight-of-evidence grounds; it was denied by the Judge. He then filed a direct appeal in 1998 on insufficient evidence but the conviction was affirmed.
Judge Schiller dissented, stating: “I dissent from that portion of the Majority’s decision which upholds the conviction of Lorenzo Johnson for first degree murder and criminal conspiracy… I believe that there is no direct evidence, nor can any be inferred, linking defendant Johnson to the death of Taraja Williams nor any agreement with defendant Walker which resulted in Williams’ death.”
In 1999, Lorenzo Johnson’s Supreme Court allocatur petition was denied without opinion. He filed a pro se first PCRA petition and filed a second PCRA petition in 2002 based on after-discovered evidence; both were denied.
Although Johnson’s attorney, Muller was found to have provided him ineffective assistance, the Superior Court denied Johnson’s request for appointment of counsel.
In 2004, Lorenzo Johnson filed a pro se habeas petition. A brief in support of the habeas concluded that there was insufficient evidence, ineffective assistance regarding jury instruction, and a Brady violation regarding a plea agreement in which the prosecution withheld favorable evidence. This habeas claimed that “the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support the guilty verdicts, thereby violating his rights to due process under Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979).” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Jackson v. Virginia that evidence is sufficient to support a conviction if, “after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” A federal court can overturn a conviction based on insufficiency of the evidence if the state court’s rationale for upholding the conviction was “objectively unreasonable.”
The district court denied this petition, but Johnson was granted a certificate of appealability.
On October 4, 2011, Judge Jones of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s previous order and granted Johnson’s petition, stating: “we find the record lacking in sufficient evidence to support the necessary conclusion that Johnson shared… intent to murder Williams and that Johnson acted in a manner that encouraged or facilitated the murder. Viewing, as we must, the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, such evidence does not permit any reasonable fact finder to reasonably infer Johnson’s specific intent to kill Williams. First‑degree murder requires the specific intent to kill, and that mens rea is also required of accomplices and co‑conspirators.”
The appeals court also found that the absence of evidence meant Johnson’s guilty verdicts were based on the jury’s speculative assumptions and unreasonable inferences, which “is Constitutionally insufficient to support a conviction.”
In 2012, there was a district court hearing on Johnson’s request to be released, although the PA Attorney General opposed this. Four employees from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections testified that Johnson was a model prisoner.
Lorenzo Johnson was released from SCI Camp Hill by Judge Jones on January 28, 2012.
One month later, the PA Attorney General filed a cert petition to overturn the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals grant of habeas. In March, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision and reinstated Johnson’s convictions. The Court made this decision based on the fact that federal courts must give deference to the jury’s verdict and state court rulings, and that state law provides substantive law of the crime whereas Jackson v. Virginia governs the 14th Amendment due process sufficiency analysis. The Court ruled in Coleman v. Johnson that “the evidence was sufficient to convict Johnson as an accomplice and a co-conspirator in the murder of Taraja Williams.” Read the entire Supreme Court ruling here.
Johnson remained free for only 4 months, during which time he obtained a drivers license, an inexpensive car, rebuilt relations with his extended family, found a stable job, and met his fiancée.
On June 14, 2012, just a few months after his release, Lorenzo Johnson surrendered himself and was re-incarcerated. Jeffrey Deskovic, an exoneree who spent 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit and who subsequently founded The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, drove Johnson back to prison.
Over the course of the next year, new evidence was discovered. Key pages of early police reports had been withheld from Johnson and his attorneys for eighteen years.
On August 5, 2013, Johnson’s new attorney, Michael Wiseman filed a third PCRA petition for a new trial, this time presenting “a case of actual innocence.” The filing contains new sworn affidavits from a police detective, from people who had knowledge of the murder and the real killer(s), evidence that Johnson was “not in Harrisburg the night Williams was killed” but rather New York, and “newly discovered information” discrediting witnesses’ testimonies.
In fact, there were no witnesses to the murder. In addition, Carla Brown, the main prosecution witness, was a confirmed drug addict who had motive to testify in order to secure favorable treatment from the police and had initially provided to police multiple versions of the events. It was discovered that police “worked on” her for months until she gave them the version of events that were propounded at trial. Carla Brown now admits that she lied at trial. Other witnesses admit they were coerced into lying or staying silent, threatened by detectives with being falsely charged with crimes or promised leniency. For example, witness Brian Ramsey stated in a post-conviction affidavit that he falsely testified to seeing Johnson outside the bar that night, and that he only saw Walker in the crowd: “I actually never saw Mr. Johnson.” New evidence points to the actual perpetrators, as those who were previously held as witnesses are in fact now suspects.
The newly discovered evidence contains numerous instances of unconstitutional conduct on the part of the police and prosecution in Johnson’s case.
As Wiseman stated: “These affidavits constitute newly discovered evidence – they make clear that the Commonwealth withheld from Mr. Johnson exculpatory evidence that would have demonstrated his innocence, would have destroyed the credibility of the already highly suspect primary witness against him, and would have unquestionably changed the outcome of the trial.”
Johnson filed successive habeas with this new evidence. Johnson’s new attorney identified five impeachment items for cross-x in the suppressed documents. Lorenzo Johnson is now awaiting a hearing.
Take a look at the third PCRA petition, supplements, and other legal documents from Lorenzo’s case here.