Incarceration nation

Corey Walker, Innocent of Murder

Targeted in war on drugs

By Rachel Wolkenstein

For over two years I have been an advocate and supporter of the Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson. Beginning in September 2014 I began representing co-defendant Corey Walker in his appeal to overturn his conviction on grounds of actual innocence, police and prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. Less than two months later, the Pennsylvania Attorney General asked the judge in the case to vacate my admission to practice pro hac vice1 as Corey Walker’s lawyer. Both the post-conviction appeal proceeding and the Attorney General’s motion to remove me from the case are pending.

This is an introduction to the case of Corey Walker who was framed for a December 1995 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania murder. The case of his also innocent co-defendant Lorenzo Johnson is more well-known. These men were sentenced to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole. In 2013 over 49,000 men and woman were imprisoned in what Mumia Abu-Jamal has bluntly described as “slow death row.”

Corey Walker and co-defendant Lorenzo Johnson are two of the estimated 100,000 actually innocent men incarcerated in the United States. They are part of the generation of young Black men imprisoned in the “war on drugs” that led to the mass incarceration of some 2.3 million men and women, of whom 60 percent are Black or Hispanic.

The Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General established a multi-jurisdictional Municipal Drug Task Force providing millions of dollars in federal and state funds to police for overtime and specialized surveillance. Corey Walker and Lorenzo Johnson were targeted as New York drug dealers, who the Dauphin County Drug Task Force called “New York N-----s.”

The murder charges brought against Walker and Johnson resulted not from any connection to the Harrisburg murder of Tarajay Williams, but from their refusal to “cooperate” and give false testimony on drug cases. Walker and Johnson insisted on their innocence and fighting the false murder charge. They rejected offers of plea deals. At the time of the shotgun killing, Walker was in a nearby bar and Johnson was in New York City. They each had numerous alibi witnesses. Until the jury rendered its guilty verdicts and the judge immediately sentenced them to life without parole, they hadn’t believed that innocent men could be convicted of murder.

Now eighteen years later, the evidence of state misconduct, extending from the Harrisburg Police and Dauphin County District Attorney’s office through the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, is nakedly exposed in the Pennsylvania state post-conviction appeals (PCRA) filings by Lorenzo Johnson and Corey Walker.

Their cases provide textbook examples of suppression of exculpatory evidence2, police coercion and prosecution promises to “witnesses” to secure false testimony, conflicts of interest and deliberate prosecutorial manipulation and manufacturing of evidence. This is established by new witness statements, newly disclosed police records, and the existing trial record:

  • The prosecution’s trial evidence was entirely circumstantial: There was no eyewitness to the shotgun murder, no weapon, no fingerprints, and no blood evidence.
  • Contrary to the police trial testimony, it is now known that the police had “identifiable fingerprints.”
  • Shortly after the murder, witnesses identified other men on the street with the victim. There is no record of these men being investigated.
  • The first detective assigned to investigate the case was the father of Corey Walker’s girlfriend. Six months later when Walker was arrested for the murder he immediately stated he was innocent and feared for his life at the hands of that detective.
  • The two main witnesses manufactured false evidence under coercive influence from the police and prosecution. Both women were drug addicts and low-level dealers.
  • The main witness was a suspect, and detectives worked her over for months until she “told the truth.” Her transcribed pretrial interview that contradicted her trial testimony was suppressed.
  • The lead detective had a close family-like relationship with the woman who became the “motive witness” on the eve of trial. The detective “protected her” when she was arrested on drug charges or thefts. She had been one of Johnson’s alibi witnesses.
  • This “motive witness” was promised sentencing leniency in an unrelated robbery conviction in exchange for her testimony. Ten days after Corey Walker and Lorenzo Johnson were convicted she received probation rather than the mandatory five years imprisonment.
  • Police threatened or offered favors to witnesses to change their testimony.

Unlike most criminal cases, in which the prosecutor is the county district attorney, this case was removed to the Office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General for trial and all subsequent appeals and legal proceedings. The putative reason was a conflict of interest with the District Attorney’s office on the grounds that Corey Walker had placed a “hit” on Dauphin County District Attorney John Cherry. This was a totally fabricated story, made by a major drug task target threatened with criminal drug charges that carried life sentences. (He recently submitted a sworn statement recanting that allegation.) Corey Walker was arrested by a federal and state swat team at his mother’s home in Yonkers, New York on June 5, 1996. The swat team told his mother they were sent because of the “hit” allegations. But nothing was said about this supposed “hit” at the extradition hearing. The Harrisburg detectives who traveled to Yonkers in an attempt to interrogate Walker included an investigator in the murder case and a chief detective of the Drug Task Force. Nothing was asked about a supposed “hit.” Nor were any charges based on this allegation brought against Corey Walker.

The career prosecutor assigned to the case was Deputy Attorney General E. Christopher Abruzzo, newly arrived from the Dauphin County District Attorney Office.

  • The Attorney General’s office, with full resources of the state, did not conduct an independent investigation, relying on the investigation conducted by Harrisburg detectives who had conflicts of interest and had not investigated suspects identified shortly after the murder.
  • At trial Deputy Attorney General Abruzzo presented a totally different motive and a new “motive witness” from that presented at the earlier preliminary hearing, which had been handled by the district attorney’s office, charging Lorenzo Johnson.
  • Deputy Attorney General Abruzzo knew, or should have known, that testimony given at trial by prosecution witnesses was false.
  • Deputy Attorney General Abruzzo placed the lead detective who coerced witnesses and had the close family relationship with the “motive witness” at the prosecutor’s table throughout the trial.
  • In his trial summation, Deputy Attorney General Abruzzo misrepresented the trial testimony, repeatedly encouraged the jury to discount the alibi witnesses and other conflicting evidence and vouched for his witnesses, saying they had no motive to lie. This while knowing the main witness was a named suspect and the “motive witness” faced a five-year prison sentence on a robbery conviction.

Christopher Abruzzo went on to become Chief Deputy Attorney General in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, supervising the Drug Strike Force Section. Following this he was Deputy Chief of Staff to Governor Tom Corbett, overseeing the activities of nearly 20 commonwealth agencies and commissions, and then a Secretary in Tom Corbett’s gubernatorial cabinet until Christopher Abruzzo recently resigned as part of the pornography email scandal involving members of the Office of the Attorney General.

The corruption, conflict of interests, police coercion of witnesses and prosecutorial suppression and manipulation of evidence and witnesses that led to Corey Walker and Lorenzo Johnson’s convictions are not unique to this case. In fact they are in varying degrees the norm. Prosecutorial misconduct is often described as “rampant,” “pervasive” and “endemic” in literature on criminal justice and in the media, i.e., Epidemic of Prosecutor Misconduct, Center for Prosecutor Integrity, December 2013; “Rampant Prosecutorial Misconduct,” New York Times Editorial, January 4, 2014. The operations of U.S. criminal prosecutions are that of a racist and class-biased “frame-up system.”

The routineness of the prosecutorial misconduct in securing the convictions of Corey Walker and Lorenzo Johnson does not make it any the less outrageous. They are acts of impunity by prosecutors who are rarely, if ever, held to account to due process standards as written in legal texts. Moreover, the practice of the Office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General is to vigorously defend police and prosecutorial conduct, including by persistent appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse prisoner legal wins striking down convictions gained by prosecutorial misconduct, as evidenced in Lorenzo Johnson’s case.

Lorenzo Johnson’s legal roller coaster and nightmare have been widely publicized. After 16 years of non-stop legal challenges he won a federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissal of his conviction on grounds of insufficiency of evidence and was released from prison. This was the equivalent of a judicial acquittal. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office submitted a late-filed petition and the United States Supreme Court re-instated of Johnson’s conviction in a per curiam3 decision. Lorenzo Johnson drove himself back to prison after less than five months out, to fight for his freedom and exoneration.

A few months later, in November 2012, I first met with Lorenzo at SCI Mahanoy. Since then I have been an active supporter of his campaign for freedom and exoneration.

From August 2013 to November 2014 Lorenzo Johnson and his lawyers filed a new Pennsylvania state petition followed by three supplemental petitions to reverse his conviction, including 32 legal claims and statements from over twenty witnesses supporting his innocence and police and prosecutorial misconduct. During this period, the Attorney General’s office asserted it was “interested in justice” and would investigate the new evidence.

After a year of so-called investigation, the Attorney General’s 94-page response filed on December 24, 2014 requested the judge dismiss Lorenzo’s legal claims as “time barred,” gave no credence to his new evidence, and denied there was any suppression of evidence by the prosecution. As is clear from the Attorney General’s own words, the prosecution’s fundamental objection is Johnson’s exposure of misconduct of the prosecutor and the lead detective.

“Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the fact that Johnson has recklessly unleashed the hounds of defamatory hell, publicly accusing and branding the career prosecutor and career police detective primarily responsible for his prosecution as corrupt and malevolent.”

At the urging of friends of both men, in May 2014, I met with Corey Walker at SCI Dallas and then began helping him prepare his pro se petition and supplemental petition incorporating evidence uncovered by Lorenzo Johnson and his lawyer as well as Walker’s own independent investigation.

In September 2014, after a sponsoring motion by J. Michael Farrell, noted Pennsylvania trial and appellate attorney I was admitted pro hac vice as Corey Walker’s attorney in his new post-conviction appeal proceeding to overturn his conviction on grounds of actual innocence, police and prosecutorial misconduct and ineffectiveness of counsel.

I made a detailed request to the prosecutor, the office of Attorney General of Pennsylvania, for voluntary discovery of information concerning the police falsification of the evidence against Corey Walker, the retaliatory purpose of the prosecution and the complicity of the office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General in presenting false evidence. I also made a motion to be able to file an Amended Petition on behalf of Corey Walker.

Pennsylvania Attorney General attacks Corey Walker’s lawyer for her political views

The Pennsylvania Attorney General did not respond to the substance of Corey Walker’s already filed pro se petitions, or to the discovery requests. Instead, the Attorney General filed a 123-page motion to President Judge Todd A. Hoover of the Court of Common Pleas, who presides over this case, to vacate his order admitting me to practice and thereby prevent me from continuing as Corey Walker’s lawyer.

The Attorney General’s motion alleges that I practiced law without a license in Pennsylvania, violated the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct (“Rules”) for not having “candor” to the Court disclosing my assistance to Corey Walker with his pro se filings, and that Corey Walker and Lorenzo Johnson have a conflict of interest in their legal cases. Incorporated into the Attorney General’s motion are dozens of pages referencing dates and length of time of phone calls and visits I had with Lorenzo Johnson and Corey Walker. The purported legal and factual bases for these allegations are non-existent and/or contrary to actual Pennsylvania law and untrue.

The Attorney General’s motion is explicit that its objection to my representation of Corey Walker is political. He claims that it is “intolerable” for an attorney who is opposed to, and publicly critical of, the class and race bias integral to the U.S. justice system to practice in the courts of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Attorney General’s motion is explicit that it is my political views that make it “intolerable” to for me be a lawyer and advocate for my client in Pennsylvania courts. The Attorney General’s legal filing contains quotes from speeches I made on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case that are posted on my web page.

The sine qua non of my alleged abuse of authority practicing pro hac vice in Pennsylvania is that the notorious, “prosecutor in robes” Judge Albert Sabo ordered me handcuffed and taken out of the courtroom during the 1995 Post Conviction Relief Act [PCRA] hearings in Commonwealth v. Mumia Abu-Jamal while I was co-counsel for Mumia. My apparent offense was responding to Judge Sabo’s denial of a subpoena for the court administrator to testify, which would have provided the factual record for Mumia’s challenge to the jury pool. I got only as far as saying, “Your Honor, your Honor...” when Judge Sabo had the bailiff remove me from the courtroom.

The purpose of the Attorney General’s motion is to stop Corey Walker from continuing his investigation and to thwart his legal claims exposing the gross and deliberate prosecutorial misconduct underlying his conviction. It was also intended to divert and delay the Court from proceeding to the merits of Walker’s PCRA petition, which compels a reversal of his conviction and dismissal of charges.

Moreover, this action by the Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania is an attack on the Sixth Amendment rights of a prisoner to counsel of his choice and access to the courts, and the First Amendment rights of an attorney. A win for the Pennsylvania Attorney General on its motion to remove me as counsel has ramifications beyond that effecting Corey Walker’s defense and my ability to represent him and potentially others in Pennsylvania.

Judge Todd Hoover has not yet instructed the office of the Attorney General to file an answer to the Corey’s post-conviction petition. The Attorney General is not required to do so unless ordered to do so by the judge per Pennsylvania law governing post-conviction proceedings. Until then Corey Walker’s challenge to his conviction is in legal limbo.

However, Judge Hoover did order me to file an answer the Attorney General’s motion to remove me as counsel, which I did after first filing a new Second Supplemental Petition on behalf of Corey Walker. This Supplemental Petition expands and states in detail the deliberate acts of misconduct by Deputy Attorney General Christopher Abruzzo in convicting Corey Walker and Lorenzo Johnson of a murder they did not commit.

At stake in this case are, first and foremost, the lives of Corey Walker and Lorenzo Johnson, who are innocent men, as well as their families. This frame-up prosecution has taken nineteen years from them. They have no recourse except to continue to fight to overturn their convictions. In Pennsylvania, a sentence of life imprisonment is life; there is no possibility of parole.

Despite the existing evidence of the gross state misconduct that put these innocent men in prison it is an uphill battle to obtain exoneration and freedom in the courts. Along with mass incarceration, new laws were passed with the purpose of undermining if not destroying a prisoner’s ability to challenge his conviction by means of habeas corpus in the federal courts. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a Clinton administration law passed in April 1996 has set series of time bars and requires various forms of “deference” to state court juries and judges that must be overcome for a federal court to consider a state prisoner’s challenges to his conviction, even on grounds of innocence and state misconduct, all of which make appeals of state convictions extremely difficult.

As Corey Walker states in his “Call for Justice:”

“I am driven not just by the fact that I am innocent. This injustice is not unique to me and my family. It could be your father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter, not to mention you. I ask for your help because I, and other prisoners, we can’t breathe!”

This is an appeal for your support and publicity and for future action on behalf of both Corey Walker and Lorenzo Johnson.

Write to Lorenzo Johnson:

Lorenzo Johnson #DF1036

SCI Mahanoy

301 Morea Road

Frackville, PA 17932

Write to Corey Walker:

Corey Walker DF 1014

SCI Dallas

1000 Follies Road

Dallas, PA 18612-9515;

Rachel Wolkenstein, February 2, 2015

1 “Pro hac vice” is Latin for “this time only.” This refers to the application of an out-of-state lawyer to appear in court for a particular trial, even though he/she is not licensed to practice in the state where the trial is being held. The application is usually granted. I am an attorney admitted to practice in the State of New York and in various federal district courts and in the United States Supreme Court. I was previously admitted pro hac vice in Pennsylvania in the case of Com. v. Mumia Abu-Jamal and was co-counsel for Mumia from 1995-1999 in his PCRA proceeding.

2 “Exculpatory evidence” in legal terms, as defined by landmark Supreme Court decisions Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) and Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419 (1995) is evidence of innocence, but Brady also includes more than direct evidence that the defendant did not commit the crime. Evidence favorable to a defendant is also information or material that might lead a jury to conclude that the defendant should be found not guilty of the crime charged. This includes evidence that impeaches or otherwise casts doubt on the truthfulness of the testimony of a prosecution witness, such as a reason to lie, or other aspects of the prosecution case, including its forensics reports. Such information, potentially favorable to the defense, in the possession of the police or prosecution must be turned over to the defense as part of the prosecutor’s due process obligations. This is referred to as Brady material.

3 “Per curiam” is Latin for “by the court.” This refers to an opinion from an appellate court that does not identify any specific judge who may have written the opinion. Until relatively recently per curiam decisions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court tended to be short, without substantial discussion of the issues of the case. This is no longer the case, as in Lorenzo Johnson’s case in which the U.S. Supreme Court did not allow his lawyers the usual practice of a full legal briefing and oral argument before deciding the case on substantive grounds, reversing a federal Court of Appeals ruling.