Incarceration Nation

Lorenzo Johnson Free!

“I had to end their pain:” Lorenzo Johnson says he took plea deal for his family

By Matt Miller

In the end, Lorenzo Johnson said he did it for his family because, “I had to end their pain.”

That pain had throbbed for nearly 22 years, ever since Johnson received a life prison sentence for a 1995 Harrisburg murder he insists he didn’t commit.

So on Tuesday afternoon, July 11, 2017, Johnson said he put his relatives first, swallowed what he called a “bitter pill,” and accepted a plea deal with the state attorney general’s office that at long last set him free.

That deal did come with a catch, however, in that it still saddles him with a murder conviction.

The New York man’s freedom came when Senior Judge Lawrence F. Clark Jr. accepted his no contest pleas to third-degree murder and conspiracy charges for the December 1995 slaying of Tarajay Williams.

Clark promptly sentenced the 47-year-old Johnson to ten to 20 years in prison, then ordered his immediate parole. Clark also ordered Johnson to serve five years of probation, and allowed him to do so at his home in Westchester County, New York.

Moments later, a visibly emotional Johnson left the Dauphin County Courthouse surrounded by dozens of his relieved and joyful family, friends and attorneys.

Even as he headed for the exit, Johnson paused for a moment and once again insisted he had nothing to do with Williams’ murder in an alley off the 1400 block of Market Street.

“This decision was for my family. It wasn’t for me,” he said when asked why he took the plea deal. “I’ve been innocent from day one. I still stand on that.”

“I should have been walking out fully exonerated,” he added.

Johnson has argued that he wasn’t even near the scene when Williams was killed. He has insisted that prosecution witnesses lied and that he was prepared to keep pressing an appeal in which he claimed the prosecution wrongly withheld evidence from the defense that would have resulted in an acquittal during his three-day trial in 1996.

His decades-long legal battle was brought to Tuesday’s finish line by his lawyer, Michael Wiseman, working in tandem with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

Yet Senior Deputy Attorney General William Stoycos did not concede that Johnson is innocent of Williams’ murder. That much was clear in the statement he read into the court record as part of Johnson’s plea agreement.

Stoycos said prosecutors were prepared to present evidence that Johnson was an accomplice to Williams’ murder and that witnesses placed him at the scene.

Stoycos said Johnson was present when Corey Walker killed Williams with a shotgun blast to the chest because Williams was refusing to pay money he owed. The three men had argued and Williams had previously beaten Walker with a broomstick, the prosecutor said.

He said witnesses placed Williams, Walker and Johnson together in the four-foot-wide alley when Williams was killed and that Walker and Johnson were seen nearby right after the slaying. A defense witness lied in exchange for bail money to try to give Johnson an alibi, Stoycos said.

None of that is true, Johnson insisted as he gave an impromptu statement on his way to the courthouse exit. He said Walker, who is serving a life prison sentence for the slaying, is innocent as well.

“Obviously we challenge these facts,” Wiseman said after Stoycos read his statement during the sentencing hearing. Johnson only admits that Stoycos outlined what the prosecution would present had a new trial been ordered, Wiseman said.

Johnson said nothing when Clark gave him the chance right before imposing the new liberating sentence. “It is the court’s understanding that you have discussed this agreement up, down, sideways, every way possible with your counsel,” the judge observed.

Wiseman told Clark that Johnson “is a gentle person of the highest order. He has shown strength and integrity...He is an inspiration to me. This is the happiest day of my professional career.”

Johnson displayed persistence through years of appeals and kept fighting even after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered him back to prison in 2012 after a federal appeals court ruling briefly freed him, Wiseman said.

“Mr. Johnson, you have been a very fortunate man in that you have been blessed by having extraordinary counsel represent you,” Clark said.

The judge then announced, “You are a free man,” prompting applause from the dozens of people in the gallery.

Johnson was just steps from the courthouse exit when he was asked how it felt to finally taste freedom after so many years.

“You get numb after a while. I’ve been fighting this for 22 years,” he replied. “I’m moving on from here.”

Johnson was on his way home when Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a statement on the outcome of the case.

“Mr. Johnson was not the principal actor in the murder. He served 22 years in prison without any significant misconduct. During his brief release from prison in 2012 he conducted himself responsibly, and voluntarily returned to prison when directed to do so by the court,” the AG wrote.

“I believe the agreement approved today serves the cause of justice and the best interests of the people of our Commonwealth,” Shapiro said. 

Williams family declined to comment on Johnson’s release.

Pennsylvania Real-Time News, July 11, 2017