Incarceration Nation

Lorenzo Johnson—An Innocent Man Freed from Prison, Only to Be Re-incarcerated!

In the course of little more than a year, Lorenzo Johnson, an innocent man falsely convicted of murder who won his freedom last January after 16 years in prison, has suffered two nightmarish turns of events. Four months after Johnson’s release from prison, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which had overturned his conviction on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Johnson voluntarily returned to prison to continue his legal fight. Then on April 17, 2013 the very same judges of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals who had previously freed him formally vacated their ruling and refused to even hear his motion for a hearing on additional grounds that his conviction was obtained by police misconduct in violation of due process. Lorenzo Johnson now faces starting over with his legal fight for his innocence and freedom.

Lorenzo Johnson was arrested and charged with being an accomplice to the murder of a Harrisburg man, Taraja Williams, in 1996, some three months after the murder outside a bar. Johnson was charged after turning down a plea of 5-10 years and refusing to finger an acquaintance, Corey Walker, for the murder and a drug dealing charge. There was no eyewitness to the murder and no ballistics evidence tying him to the shooting. The photographs of the scene show that the shooting could not have happened as the prosecution said. Johnson also had alibi witnesses—he was in New York City at the time of the shooting. At the trial, the main prosecution witness testified that Johnson was present in the bar during arguments between his co-defendant and the deceased. But initially she told detectives she knew nothing about the shooting and hadn’t seen Johnson. The bar owner and bouncer testified that Johnson was not in the bar that night. Another prosecution witness said on the witness stand that he had been threatened by the police to say he saw Johnson on the street near the shooting.

Johnson challenged his conviction on several grounds. One was that the evidence, even as presented by the prosecution, did not make out a case that he was an accomplice in, or in agreement with, the murder of the deceased. In his direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, one judge dissented stating, “I believe there is no direct evidence, nor can any be inferred, linking defendant Johnson to the death of Taraja William nor any agreement with defendant Walker which resulted in William’s death.”

Lorenzo Johnson continued to fight his frame-up conviction and filed a state post-conviction relief petition and a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus reasserting the fact that there was no legal evidence against him and that his conviction was the result of police coercion or favors to witnesses. In particular, the prosecution swore that a witness against Johnson had not been given any deals to say Johnson was present during an argument between co-defendant Walker and the deceased. Just days after Johnson’s conviction, witness Victoria Doubs was sentenced on an unrelated robbery charge and the prosecution put on the record her cooperation in testifying against Johnson. On the prosecution’s recommendation she was immediately released from prison.

In October 2011, Johnson’s conviction was overturned by the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, agreeing that the evidence used to convict him was insufficient. That was a decision that Lorenzo Johnson was legally innocent and could not be retried. The PA state Attorney General was left with only one possible challenge to the ruling of the federal appeals court—a petition for certiorari (review) to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was statistically and legally unlikely. The district court judge who had initially denied his petition held a bond hearing since retrial was barred given a dismissal on grounds of insufficient evidence. Johnson’s family and friends as well as four PA corrections officers testified on his behalf. Over the objection of the PA Attorney General he was released on January 18, 2012.

He reunited with his family—mother, brother, sister, children. He had a new wife, a job as a construction worker and was active fighting for the release of others who were wrongly convicted. Johnson thought the agony of life imprisonment without parole—slow death row—was over.

However, the state’s petition for review was accepted by Supreme Court Judge Scalia although it was filed late by the PA Attorney General. In a unanimous decision, on May 29, 2012, the United States Supreme Court summarily reversed the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ grant of habeas corpus relief. Lorenzo Johnson was forced to return to prison on June 14, 2012 with only a few days’ notice. On April 17, 2013 the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals denied a new hearing on the basis of his claims of police and prosecutorial misconduct in obtaining witness testimony against him.

Lorenzo Johnson issued the following statement:

“After spending 16-and-a-half years in prison for a crime I’m innocent of, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals granted my release and restored my broken faith that justice for the innocent does exist. The U.S. Supreme Court failed justice four months later by reversing the 3rd Circuit decision and reinstating my life sentence. Once again my fate rested in the hands of the judges from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. For ten months I hoped this panel of judges would grant my release on my Brady violation claim—the suppression of material evidence favorable to the defense—that had merit. Not only did they deny my appeal, they would not even grant me a hearing to hear my claim. The same court that restored my faith in justice, destroyed it.

“How can the Appeals Court vacate a life sentence and deem it unconstitutional then turn around and won’t even hear my appeal? I am the same person the 3rd Circuit Court released due to insufficient evidence and barred a retrial.

“I’m one of MANY wrongful convictions. Whenever someone is wrongfully convicted of a crime, it affects the falsely accused, victims, families, taxpayers, and society as a whole.

“My family, friends and job are still waiting on me and I will take over where I left off. At the end of the day I’m still a son, father, brother and uncle. I will continue to speak out against wrongful convictions. One second is too long for an innocent person to spend in prison.”

For more information:

Lorenzo Johnson’s family encourages everyone outraged by this injustice to write or call the PA Attorney General and Demand: Free Lorenzo Johnson, Now!

— April 23, 2013

Kathleen G. Kane, Attorney General

Office of the Attorney General, 16th Floor

Strawberry Square

Harrisburg, PA 17120

Phone: 717-787-3391

Fax: 717-787-5211

Write to:

Lorenzo Johnson DF1036

SCI Mahanoy

301 Morea Road

Frackville, PA 17932