I Was Found Innocent After 16 Years, Then Sent Back to Prison
read on TheHuffingtonPost.com here
This case began with two lies: the one I refused to tell, and one a crack-cocaine abuser agreed to tell.
On December 15, 1995, while I was charged in an unrelated case, a detective from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania demanded that I become an informant and blame someone for a murder that I knew nothing about. I refused. Then I was threatened: if I didn’t “cooperate” I would face trouble. On March 26, 1996, a crack abuser falsely implicated me, claiming I was present when that murder took place. I’ve been in trouble ever since.
There were no eyewitnesses in this case, no weapon, no blood evidence, nor any fingerprints on a piece of shotgun that was recovered. The police had statements from other witnesses identifying people other than my co-defendant Corey Walker and I, but they never followed up on them.
In March of 1997, my trial began. The prosecution’s case was built on coerced witnesses who got deals for their pending cases in exchange for their false testimony. I was represented by an attorney who neither interviewed me nor called my crucial alibi witnesses who knew I was in New York when the crime happened. I was convicted and sentenced to life without parole — an innocent man. I felt like I was on another planet. Some “old timers” in prison convinced me to study for my GED, and when I graduated, they told me to study criminal law. When I did so, I quickly realized that my trial counsel had essentially been an ally to the prosecutor, and not to me, her client.
My direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court was denied in 1998, but a judge’s dissenting opinion in the case said it all: “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.” If a judge writes these words, how can there be a case? But the other two judges rubber-stamped the original verdict, and it would be long years before any sanity returned to my case.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals vacated my conviction on October 5, 2011 on grounds of insufficient evidence. At a bail hearing, where my family and even staff members from the prison testified on my behalf, the PA Attorney General’s office howled that I was a menace, but a federal judge ordered my release.
Finally, I was on my way home, thanks to hard years of pro se law work and the expert counsel of Michael Wiseman. But the Attorney General’s Office would fight to reinstate the conviction. Wiseman told me not to worry, because the US Supreme Court agrees to hear less than two percent of the cases petitioning it.
On January 18, 2012, after 16 and a half years, I walked out of prison to begin my life anew. Childhood friends got me a job working for a construction company. The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, with whom I had corresponded with while incarcerated, also assisted me with some emergency funding; taking me clothes shopping, and staying in consistent contact with me, which I found to be a stabilizing factor in an otherwise largely unfamiliar world. I started doing speaking engagements about wrongful convictions at colleges and law schools. I also met a special woman, fell in love, and we became engaged. After almost two decades of hell, life was sweet.
That sweetness rather suddenly turned sour when I received a phone call from Wiseman informing me that the US Supreme Court not only granted the PA Attorney General cer’t, but also reinstated the conviction all at once, without my attorneys being allowed to fully brief the issues or make any oral argument. This decision meant that I would have to return to prison to resume a life-without-parole sentence for a crime I did not commit. Ironically, the court’s decision came down the same day I was supposed to start a new job that The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice had obtained for me.
I called my fiancée, my mother, my family and friends, and Jeff. All around me were in tears.
What was I supposed to do? It was criminal for the government to imprison an innocent man for a crime they knew I didn’t commit. How much more vile to re-imprison him? But I wasn’t guilty, so why should I run? Besides, I wanted to clear my name, and that couldn’t happen if I ran. On June 14, 2012, Jeff drove me from New York back to prison in Pennsylvania. He said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do other than when he served time himself for a crime he didn’t commit prior to being cleared by DNA.
My legal team, led by Wiseman, starting digging. Our strategy was simple: turn up even more evidence of innocence. Investigators discovered a treasure trove of wrongdoing, hidden evidence, and prosecutorial misconduct. Meanwhile, The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation helped keep my case alive in the media, participated in rallies, even chartering buses several times so that my extended family and New York supporters could participate.
The lead detective on my case, Kevin Duffin, was a god-brother of the motive witness, but no one ever knew this at trial. The State’s chief witness against me, the crack-cocaine abuser, had been named a suspect in the murder herself, just days after the killing. Someone else’s fingerprints where on the murder weapon. I’ve been in prison for nineteen years with all this evidence having been withheld!
Wiseman met with a representative of Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office to show our findings. After promising a full and fair investigation of the evidence, they rejected my innocence claim, arguing that the evidence is not credible while other evidence, previously hidden for two decades, was discovered too late.
They are, however, conceding that I am entitled to a hearing on the alternative suspect issue along with her original statement which differed from her trial testimony; and on the familial relationship issue. It’s clear, though, that they will argue the conviction should be upheld anyway, despite these serious issues. But I won’t stop fighting back.