Spotlight: An Interview with Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson by Zahara Hill

Many people inside and outside of the prison community are familiar with the story of Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson. For those of you who are not, Johnson was convicted of a 1996 murder. After the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, he became a free man in 2012. However, the U.S. Supreme Court later reinstated his conviction without allowing him or his legal team to present any arguments on his behalf. Johnson then had to return to prison on June 14, 2013. Through mail correspondence, I interviewed Johnson about his case and his life shortly before the reinstatement.
ZH: Why do you think you were wrongfully convicted?

LJ: The court system (police, attorney general, and judges all the way up to the Middle District Federal Court) allowed proven false testimony, from a witness placing me at the scene of the crime, to stand. This same witness’ original statement was that she didn’t know anything and she was not there. Without this false witness, I would’ve never been targeted, let alone arrested.

ZH: How were you implicated in the case?

LJ: There is no eyewitness in my case. The police showed two mug shot photos, one of me and one of my codefendant, to the witness I mentioned above. There was no photo array or line up. Keep in mind, at the time there were NO other witnesses, so how did these two photos come about? This witness suffered from drug abuse and that was heavily played upon. I went from being the lookout, to just being present at the scene. Pennsylvania law clearly states, “Mere presence is not enough to convict.” Since I rejected their plea deal of 5 to 10 years, and refused to lie against my codefendant, the police and prosecutor started going at anybody who was helping me.

ZH: What evidence did the prosecutor have to connect you to the murder?

LJ: The prosecution changed their motive two times, and at trial went with a theory that my codefendant and the deceased got in an argument (over a debt) in a bar, leading the bar owner to ask all of us to leave. The witness I mentioned stated she left behind us and walked past the three of us. She stated my codefendant and the deceased went into an alley and that I was standing on the sidewalk. She said that when she was halfway up the block, she heard a boom (gunshot) and ran to a friend’s house, and that the friend already knew what had happened. At trial, I had the bar owner and bouncer that worked the bar that night testify for me. They both said I wasn’t there that night. Since the police couldn’t place me in the bar or at the scene, they used a witness —who never implicated me or my codefendant in his statement — at trial, saying he saw me after the murder. This same witness later contacted my appeal attorney and recanted his trial testimony and said he was forced to put me at the scene.

ZH: Could you walk readers through all that occurred within 24 hours after you received that phone call from your attorney that you’d be going back to prison?

LJ: I was at work when I got a call from my lead attorney. I couldn’t understand what he was saying because he was literally crying. But, I heard that the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated my conviction per curiam, without the usual procedure of full legal briefing and oral argument. Mind you, the Attorney General filed their Certiori Petition late. I instantly got numb, and my biggest nightmare — going back to prison—was once again a reality for me. I can’t explain the raw pain I felt and am still feeling. I left work, got in my car and drove straight to the office of the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice in Manhattan. Once I got there and explained what just took place, they signed on officially as co-counsel and started calling my Pennsylvania legal team to discuss my legal options. I called my wife and told her to meet me and explained to her what had just taken place. It crushed her. I called an emergency family meeting. I didn’t sleep that night because I had to attend a press conference in the capital of New York (Albany) entitled “Stop Wrongful Convictions Now,” hosted by attorney Barry Scheck for the Innocence Project and Vincent Doyle, president of the New York State Bar Association.

ZH: What were your plans upon being released?

LJ: As for my plans, I pretty much hit the ground running and all my plans turned into action. Being the glue that holds my family together, I immediately took charge
and reestablished myself, tightening my family bond. Within a month I was working. For my first two speaking engagements, I traveled from New York to Pennsylvania to speak at two law classes at Widener University, where one of my lawyers and his wife teach law. I spoke to troubled youth at community centers in New York. I pretty much reestablished myself and was finally moving on and enjoying life with my wife and family.

ZH: How long had you been released before discovering the appeal was overturned?

 Four and a half months, and I was allowed a couple of weeks to wrap up some personal things, bringing the total to a little over five months.
ZH: How did your family react to the news?

LJ: My family thought I was joking at first, then they quickly realized that I would never joke about a situation like this. Their screams and cries were similar to the ones you see and hear at funerals.

ZH: Why do you think the state attorney general’s office opposed your initial release?

LJ: Simple: it would’ve shone light on how their office wronged me, failed society, and how an innocent man sat in prison for almost two decades until the Third Circuit Court of Appeals served justice on October 5, 2011. Instead of doing the right thing and acknowledging that I was innocent, the attorney general labeled me as a menace to society and tried to persuade the Middle District Court not to grant me bail —knowing that I didn’t have a background of committing any violent crimes.

ZH: In your interview with the PA Prison Report, you said you’d become close friends with Jeffrey Deskovic, another man that spent 16 years in prison for a crime for which he was wrongfully convicted. What was it like meeting someone who shared your story?

LJ: As for Jeffrey Deskovic, he’s a beautiful human being! Before my sentence was vacated, I opened a line of communication with Jeffrey. He was and still is an avid writer on wrongful convictions. When my conviction was overturned, he was ecstatic. One day, I had just left work for home when I got a call and an unfamiliar voice said: “Lorenzo, welcome home. This is Jeffrey Deskovic.” I was in Yonkers, New York and he was next door in the Bronx, so it only took him 10 minutes to reach me. We hugged like long-lost brothers, a bond that only innocent prisoners can understand. I parked my car and got in his. He took me to his foundation headquarters, where I met the legal team he had put together. Jeffrey took $1.5 million out of his own money to open his Justice Foundation to help people such as us — people who were violated by the criminal justice system. Since that day Jeffrey and I have been inseparable. I joined him on speaking engagements, and he comes to see me once a month. We speak every week on the phone.

ZH: Could you provide three words to describe your life in the past two years?


ZH: Currently, where are you in the process of trying to regain your freedom?

LJ: The U.S. Supreme Court remanded my case back to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. So, I have two issues in front of them: Insufficient Evidence, and a Brady Violation. As of this writing, I’ve been waiting on a decision for 11 months. I have a lot of other things going on, but due to legal restrictions I can’t speak about them. To all of my comrades who suffer from this some injustice, RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE. Never give up. Keep in mind that I got my education, college credits, and legal support from behind these walls. Never settle, no one will ever believe in you unless you believe in yourself.