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. Johnson’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.