Solidarity Statements and Commentaries

A Message from Lorenzo’s Wife – by Tazza Johnson

“This is absolutely by far one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with in my life. Watching my husband turn himself back in prison for a crime he did not commit after giving the state of PA almost 1/2 his life already was heart breaking. Lorenzo is an innocent man that doesn’t deserve to be or belong in prison. They have robbed him of so much. There is no telling what or where he would be today had he not spent 17 years in prison. He is smart, caring, giving, always willing to lend a helping hand to others and the glue to our family. They have taken away my best friend my provider my rock. Not a day goes by that I don’t worry about his physical and mental health. I am pleading to our “Justice System” to do what’s right and free Lorenzo Johnson today!!! Bring our nightmare to an end!!”

“Cat” Returns to a Cage – A Commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal

In the street, he was known as ‘Cat’ – a young man living in the hustling life.

That’s all he knew.

But Dec. 15, 1995 changed his life.

His life became one no longer in his control, for several months thereafter he and another man were charged with killing Tarajai Williams, in an alleyway next door to a bar in Harrisburg’s Hill district. Although he wasn’t charged with actually killing Williams, police claimed he was the lookout while another man shot him. Except to this day, not a single witness has ever said they saw him do so. In fact, just hours after Williams’ body was found, one eyewitness named three other men as the killers – men who, although identified, were never charged. They had who they wanted: Lorenzo Johnson – aka ‘Cat’, and like a pit bull on a pork chop, they wouldn’t let go. Uneducated, street-smart but not boo-smart, in fact, illiterate, Johnson was in over his head. He tried to convince his lawyer that he didn’t do it, wasn’t there, and even wasn’t in the state when it happened.  But the lawyer went by police reports, didn’t fight for him, and sure enough, he and another man (Corey Walker) were soon convicted of murder and conspiracy.

Alibi witnesses, threatened by police, disappeared. Years went by, and Cat fought a lonely and desperate battle. He studied for his GED, passed it, and then studied the law.

Day by day, month by month, year by year, he fought for his freedom and exoneration.

On Sept. 28, 1998, he caught a brief glimpse of hope when a PA Superior Court judge wrote a brief but powerful opinion in his appeal. Judge Schiller (later to become a federal judge) wrote, of Johnson: “I believe that there is no direct evidence, nor can any be inferred, linking [Lorenzo] Johnson to the death of Tarajai Williams, nor any agreement… Which resulted in Williams’ death.” {Com. v. Johnson, No. 847 Harrisburg 1997, PA Superior Court, Schiller, J., dissenting op: (9/28/980. }

One would think that would be the end of it, for hadn’t a powerful State appeals court judge ruled that there was no evidence against him?  Yes, but a dissenting opinion has no force in law. Two judges voted against him – one voted for him. It would be 13 year later, in 2011, before judges would vote for him again. This time, the other way: two for him; one against. On Oct. 4, 2011, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled much like Schiller had done over a decade before, declaring an “insufficiency of evidence” – the legal equivalent of an acquittal.
Three months later Cat would walk out of prison, a free man.

But the end is not written, for despite having filed a late cert. petition, months later, in an unusual unsigned per curlam opinion (also with no oral arguments nor briefs), the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals – and reinstated this evidence-free conviction. After 6 months of freedom, Cat did something rare for any man in his situation. He left his wife and children, and his job – and turned himself in.

Here he sits, a year later, a cat in a cage, denied the most fundamental facets of justice.
In Cat’s case, evidence was irrelevant.

Cosmic Bout! Down, But Not Out for the Count! – A Commentary by Torrey Real

Ladie-e-e-e-s an-n-n-d Gen-tle-men! ln this corner, weighing in at roughly 6,255 days of incarceration: the humble yet #1 ranked contender (#1RC) of Pennsylvania (by way of Yonkers, New York); champion of the oppressed; the prince of persuasion; and pioneer of perseverance; the one, the only—Lorenzo “[Thunder] Cat” Joh-h-h-h-n-son! And, in the other corner, an “entity,” so formidable, so notorious, revered by the rich and powerful, and equally misunderstood, or loathed, by the little man; an opponent, who truly needs no introduction.

Yes people the fight is back on. And it’s ’gonna be one hell of a rematch.

News reported from the man himself. The saga continues; but this time, Cat’s pulling no punches. Heavily armed with “newly-discovered evidence” (NDE), he’s ready to take down his opponent—once and for all. Grab your popcorn, grab your tickets, and stay tuned. We all know who we came to see win, this truly momentous, and breath-taking bout; which could have an overwhelming effect on future long-term/life-serving candidates eligible for case review, parole, and other related matters. But first, let’s take a moment, and recap the events, which led up to this monumental engagement.

For those unfamiliar with Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson’s story: This is a case of actual innocence; a man convicted of murder in ’95, serving a life sentence, with his freedom—and potentially others’—hanging in the balance. His conviction was based on evidence so insubstantial, several justices found it lacking, deficient, inadequate, and would have annulled Mr. Johnson’s imprisonment. Unfortunately, the lion’s share were not of the same sentiment, and Lorenzo had to “endeavor to persevere.”

Thirteen—long, trying, and painstaking—more years later, some light was shown in his direction. This benevolent beacon of excellence came from the United States Court of Appeals, after reviewing what they also found to be insufficient cause to sustain or uphold Mr. Johnson’s conviction. Johnson v. Machling, 2011 WL 4565464 (Third Circuit, October 4, 2011.) 0n January 18, 2012, he was discharged from SCI Camp Hill—released on his own recognizance, by the Honorable John E. Jones. Johnson v. Machling, 04-cv-1564 (M.D. Pennsylvania.) However,

Honorable John E. Jones. Johnson v. Nechlin, 04-cv-1564 (M.D. Pennsylvania). However, the celebration was short lived.

No one, I mean no one could fathom what happened next—unless they had the imagination of the legendary George Lucas. What I, and many others viewed as an abominable, Machiavellian, devious and dastardly deed; cleverly crafted, and swiftly executed, happened on May 29, 2012. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the decision of the Third Circuit. Narrow technicalities pertaining to the employment of the federal habeas corpus statute, is what this despicable decision was based on. Coleman v. Johnson, 132 S.Ct. 2060 (2012). Following this ruling, Judge Jones ordered that Mr. Johnson turn himself back in by June 14, 2012. Speculation would lead me to believe that his hands were genuinely tied, in this matter. Nonetheless, a disheartening event, which is comparable to the effect of finding out that the “Death Star” was still fully operational in the epic movie premiere of director Irvin Kershner’s, The Empire Strikes Back (1980.) For it was such a malevolent and cosmic blast to a praise-worthy and magnanimously-majestic ruling, which came before it, you couldn’t help but feel a strong disruption in “the Force.”

Even after receiving the grotesque and gut-wrenching order that was handed down, Mr. Johnson turned himself in, understanding that if failed again by the system, he would be spending his remaining existence behind bars.

Notwithstanding the tactic used against him, Cat is confident in two things:

1.  The exculpatory newly discovered evidence, including sworn affidavits both from a member of the Harrisburg Police Department assigned to investigate the shooting and lay witnesses, which prove that the Commonwealth is in violation of some fundamental duties and rights; and,

2.  The ability of his current Legal counsel to properly represent him, unlike the trial attorney who made a muck of her first murder case.

Well folks, I have to tell you, I’m extremely eager to see the outcome of this proverbial “David and Goliath” bout. In parting, I’ve got to ask our #1RC the million dollar question at the forefront of most peoples’ minds. His reply was altruistic, as well as unpretentious:

Torrey Real: Cat, some say it was foolish of you to come back. Clearly, people have doubts having confronted similar beasts of oppression armed with extravagant resources, sharp maneuvers, and bombastic legal jargon, which, thus far, seems to be working in their favor. What is it in your constitution that gave you the strength to come back?

Lorenzo Johnson: My innocence. My family. My supporters. And my unwavering faith in humanity. I’ve fought too hard and have come too far—me, and those I advocate for—to have it all erased and chalked up to another regret of the Courts/Powers: having granted favor to an individual, only to turn around and give me another slap in the face. Judge Jones and those who attested to my good and honest character had faith in my recognizance. So I stand as the example for those that come after me, as I carry on the torch of those who set the proper example before me.

Do it for Love – by Shuja Moore

Can you imagine spending 17 years in prison? Don’t worry, most can’t. For me, prison life is being surrounded by thousands of people but feeling totally alone. It’s like drowning at sea, arms and legs flailing, allowing you momentary gasps of air, but it’s only a matter of time before your limbs give out you succumb to the ocean. Put another way, prison isolates, and then drowns humanity. Now imagine spending time these same 17 years incarcerated for a crime that you had absolutely nothing to do.

I love watching Lorenzo speed walk towards the visiting room. Because, if it isn’t someone from his legal team, then it means one thing: Tazza’s here.  You see, Lorenzo is in a fight for his life … literally. Innocent yet incarcerated, he’s doing everything possible to overturn his conviction as an accomplice to the murder of Taraja Williams 17 years ago. Tazza is the woman behind the man.

It was her eyes that stood out. I caught them as she watched Lorenzo leave the visiting room…so much love, yet so much pain. I was happy that he had someone who cared for him so. In here you need that. Prison makes obvious how selfish the world is, so when I see selflessness, I’m amazed. But I also feel sorry for her, for them. Being on the inside, we often forget about the struggles of outside life. How does she cope with the loneliness, financial strain, or the family and friends who don’t understand that level of love and commitment? Lorenzo can’t make important calls or emails. He can’t make sure investigators or lawyers are on their job. Tazza does that. On top of all the other obligations that life brings.

When exoneration makes the news, we shake our heads in disbelief. But we never consider what it took to get there. That’s why I loved the movie “The Hurricane” It was about the boxer Reuben Carter’s fight for exoneration after being falsely imprisoned. The movie displayed the courage, determination, love, and loyalty need to overturn a case. For Lorenzo and Tazza, however, this isn’t a movie. Visits cost money, phone calls cost money, investigations cost money. Lawyers move onto the next case; public and family support wanes. For 17 years this man has fought for his freedom. It’s time that we help him get there!

Every other week we hear about another exoneration. When will we challenge this system of “justice” that incarcerates so many innocent people for so long? What’s the point of an appellate system that rubber stamps trial errors instead of correct them? Do the crime, do the time has turned into: even if you didn’t do the crime, somebody’s gotta do the time.

There are no eyewitnesses to Taraja’s murder; there’s no ballistics evidence linking Lorenzo to this crime. He’s locked away because two people were —admittedly—intimidated and coerced into manufacturing a story of what happened. In fact, a judge in the state courts and a federal panel have acknowledged the weakness of this case. Lorenzo was even released for 5 months last year pending the resolution of the state’s appeal. Ultimately, he was made to return and now, because of legal technicalities, the same court that ordered his release has now rubber stamped his conviction. This cannot stand!

In the landmark case, In Re Winship, a United State’s Supreme Court Justice said, “it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free.” Sometimes when we hear of an injustice we figure the system will correct it. Let me tell you, that’s not always the case. Power concedes nothing without demand. Sign petitions, send emails, make calls, and donate money. Do whatever is necessary to support Loreno and Tazza.

Despite the hardships, Lorenzo is still speed walking to the visiting room. Despite it all, their love endures. In this world of hate, let’s reward that. Don’t sit back and ignore it.

Double Injustice: Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson – by the Innocence Project

Although the primary focus of this blog is highlighting cases of actual innocence – where individuals are committed of crimes they did not commit and were not even present for – that line is pretty hard to find in many cases. We hear from dozens of individuals a year who probably should not have been convicted of the crime they were, because even if they were present they had no part in the crime itself. That is precisely what the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held in the case of Lorenzo Johnson. In 2011, the Appeals Court held that the evidence presented against Mr. Johnson at his trial suggested that, at best, he was present when another man shot and killed an unarmed man. There was never an allegation that Mr. Johnson fired a shot, that he assisted the murderer in the crime, or that he even had a gun. Lorenzo Johnson was released following the court’s ruling. But in a cruel twist of fate, the United States Supreme Court undid his moment of freedom, and Mr. Johnson is once again incarcerated, his fate in the hands of the courts which have treated him with such inconsistency.
In 1995, Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson was wrongly identified as having a role in the murder of Taraja Williams. Johns on’s conviction was based solely on witness testimony although the testimony was later confirmed to be untrue. Johnson had been working to appeal his conviction since entering prison. During his incarceration, Johnson obtained his G.E.D., was enrolled in college courses, and familiarized himself with law. After having to change attorneys and being rejected by courts on multiple occasions, Johnson’s conviction was finally overturned by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in October of 2011. By January 18th 2012, when Johnson was released, he’d served over 16 years of his life without parole sentence in the Department of Corrections.
Johnson begun a construction job and relished in being able to spend time with his family in his home state of New York for four and a half months. During that time, he spoke at law classes at Widener University, youth community centers, as well as seminars on wrongful convictions. In May, Johnson received the call from his attorney, Michael Wiseman that would force him to return to life behind bars.  Johnson was informed by his attorney, who was in tears at the time of the call, that the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Third Circuit Court and consequently, Johnson’s conviction was reinstated. The abruptness of the Supreme Court’s decision was unorthodox as Johnson and his legal team were never given the opportunity to present any arguments or a briefing. On June 4th 2012, Johnson turned himself in to the State Correction Institution.
The U.S. Supreme Court would not allow Johnson and his legal team to argue after they made their decision.  Johnson’s case is currently back in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Not only had Johnson already served 16 years for a crime he did not commit, but was able to feel the bliss of freedom only to have it taken away from him without legal contest less than 5 months later. Stories such as that Johnson’s aren’t lamented only by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, but this tale of a cruel tease of freedom is a heartbreak many would be unable to fathom.

June 17, 2013
Pennsylvania Innocence Project
At Temple University
Beasley School of Law
1719 North Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA  19122