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US Court of Appeals rules against Cat Johnson’s challenge to his frame-up conviction

November 6, 2013

Demand the Pennsylvania attorney general dismiss the charges, free Lorenzo Johnson now

by Attorney Rachel Wolkenstein

Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson continues his fight for freedom. He is an innocent man serving a sentence of life imprisonment. In Pennsylvania a life sentence means just that. There is no parole, no release until you are carried out feet first or win a reversal of your conviction. And even then the struggle is to definitively defeat the prosecution’s unceasing efforts to reconvict and re-imprison, which are aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s continuing evisceration of due process rights.

Lorenzo Johnson in hard hat
Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson is eager to return to work and to his family.
Lorenzo Johnson faces that uphill legal battle. After 16 and a half years of court challenges, in October 2011 the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Johnson’s conviction on grounds of insufficiency of evidence – in effect, a judicial acquittal. In January 2012 he left prison freed on bond granted by a federal district court judge after a hearing in which family, friends and four corrections officers testified to his good character.

But the state would not stop its vendetta and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Without allowing the standard legal briefing or oral argument, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam decision in May 2012 and reversed the 3rd Circuit Appeals court that had overturned Johnson’s conviction. His conviction and life sentence were reinstated. Johnson voluntarily turned himself in and over the past year has been serving his life sentence at SCI Mahanoy, in Frackville, Penn., while continuing his legal fight.

Lorenzo Johnson filed new legal challenges to his frame-up conviction in both the Pennsylvania state and federal courts on the grounds of his “actual innocence.” The new Post-Conviction Relief Petition, filed Aug. 5, 2013, and a Second Federal Habeas Corpus petition filed Sept. 9, 2013, rips to shreds the falsified and coerced witness testimony that resulted in his 1997 conviction for a murder he did not commit. A motion was also filed in the Court of Appeals to allow the filing of this Second Federal Habeas Corpus Petition.

Without allowing the standard legal briefing or oral argument, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam decision in May 2012 and reversed the 3rd Circuit Appeals court that had overturned Johnson’s conviction. His conviction and life sentence were reinstated.

The legal filings unambiguously assert, “Lorenzo Johnson now demonstrates not only that he is factually innocent of the murder of Tarajay Williams, but that he was prevented from proving this at trial because the trial prosecutor withheld material exculpatory evidence. … This exculpatory information, when viewed in combination with the newly discovered evidence offered herein, and with the prior suppressed evidence, proves that Petitioner was not simply ‘not guilty.’ This evidence proves he is innocent of the crimes with which he was charged, and that the Commonwealth had reason to know he was innocent but prosecuted him for murder nonetheless. His conviction also resulted from constitutionally ineffective counsel at trial and during his initial PCRA proceedings.”

The new Post-Conviction Relief Petition, filed Aug. 5, 2013, and a Second Federal Habeas Corpus petition filed Sept. 9, 2013, rips to shreds the falsified and coerced witness testimony that resulted in his 1997 conviction for a murder he did not commit.

The new evidence submitted in state and federal court comes from affidavits from both lay witnesses and from a Harrisburg police detective assigned to investigate Tarajay Williams’ shooting. They make clear that the Commonwealth withheld exculpatory evidence that would have demonstrated Johnson’s innocence, corroborating his alibi (that he was out of the state when the shooting took place) and would have shattered the credibility of Carla Brown, the primary witness against him.

The linchpin to the prosecution’s case was always Carla Brown, a confirmed crack addict – who acknowledged she was very high on cocaine the night of this shooting. At trial, Brown gave testimony riddled with inconsistencies. Brown was the only person to testify that Lorenzo Johnson was at the bar before the shooting, while two witnesses from the bar who knew him said they had not seen him at the bar that night. Brown was the only person who claimed to have seen Johnson near the alley where the shooting took place.

The new evidence includes Brown’s admission, screamed out while telling counsel never to come looking for her again, that she was not in the Midnight Special bar the night of the shooting. The statement from the detective establishes that Brown was aggressively questioned by the Harrisburg police who worked her over for months.

The Commonwealth withheld exculpatory evidence that would have demonstrated Johnson’s innocence, corroborating his alibi (that he was out of the state when the shooting took place) and would have shattered the credibility of Carla Brown, the primary witness against him.

The witness the prosecution used to establish a motive for the shooting, Victoria Doubs, had been given a plea deal by the prosecution, but that deal was kept from Johnson during the trial. Two friends of the victim have provided affidavits confirming that the prosecution’s evidence against Lorenzo Johnson was false in all regards: 1) the motive for the shooting was a fabrication; the events never happened; 2) Brown was lying when she testified that Johnson was in the bar that night or in the bar doorway or alley at the time of the shooting.

Three people confirm that Johnson was not in Harrisburg, but in New York City on the night the shooting occurred.

Additionally, two witnesses point to the identities of the two men who participated in the shooting and affirm that Lorenzo Johnson was not one of them. Carla Brown is identified in new witness affidavits as being outside the bar with those men and the victim.

As the new affidavits show, numerous witnesses were threatened by police into remaining silent or falsifying their trial testimony. Some were threatened with being charged themselves with the shooting death of Tarajay Williams. One of the detectives, Kevin Duffin, was exposed as having committed the same type of coercion in other Harrisburg cases.

Two friends of the victim have provided affidavits confirming that the prosecution’s evidence against Lorenzo Johnson was false in all regards: 1) the motive for the shooting was a fabrication; the events never happened; 2) Brown was lying when she testified that Johnson was in the bar that night or in the bar doorway or alley at the time of the shooting.

Then on Oct. 15, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit denied Lorenzo Johnson’s motion to file a Second Habeas Corpus Petition. The order contained the outrageous declaration that Johnson hadn’t made a “prima facie case” that he had new evidence of his innocence. This puts a legal obstacle in Johnson’s path as his fight for freedom makes its way (again) through the state and federal courts. And it will be invoked by the Pennsylvania attorney general to undermine the newly filed Pennsylvania state appeal that is pending in the Court of Common Pleas.

Stripped of “legalese,” the appeals court’s order says Johnson’s new evidence was not brought into court soon enough, although it was the prosecution and police who withheld evidence and coerced witnesses into lying or not coming forward with the truth! This, despite over 15 years and rounds of legal battles to uncover the evidence of government misconduct.

This is a setback for Lorenzo Johnson’s renewed fight for his freedom, but he is even more determined as his Pennsylvania state court appeal continues.

The recent court rulings made in Lorenzo Johnson’s case have a much greater impact than the continued imprisonment of one innocent man. It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of actually innocent people framed and serving lengthy prison sentences in the U.S. These convictions are the results of the capitalist injustice system that is systemically class and race biased and corrupt to its core. It is a frame-up system that manufactures evidence against the guilty as well as the innocent.

Stripped of “legalese,” the appeals court’s order says Johnson’s new evidence was not brought into court soon enough, although it was the prosecution and police who withheld evidence and coerced witnesses into lying or not coming forward with the truth!

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision reinstating Johnson’s conviction is now used to defeat all insufficiency of evidence challenges to state court convictions brought to the federal courts. Similarly, the new court order that Johnson did not provide a prima facie claim for police and prosecutorial misconduct and actual innocence will be added to the prosecution’s legal arsenal.

The asserted legal basis for these court holdings is the 1996 Clinton administration Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) which provides legislative limits to federal court review of state criminal convictions. The argument is that state judicial decisions and jury convictions should be given extreme deference when examined for due process violations under the U.S. Constitution. This is a form of assertion of the primacy of state’s rights and the inapplicability of the right to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

The fight for Lorenzo Johnson’s freedom is not only a fight for this courageous man and family. The fight for Lorenzo Johnson is also a fight for all the innocent others who have been framed and are sitting in the slow death of prison. The Pennsylvania attorney general is directly pursuing the charges against Lorenzo, despite the evidence of his innocence and the corruption of the police. Increased public support and protest is needed. Free Lorenzo Johnson now!

The fight for Lorenzo Johnson’s freedom is not only a fight for this courageous man and family. The fight for Lorenzo Johnson is also a fight for all the innocent others who have been framed and are sitting in the slow death of prison.

Lorenzo’s new PCRA (Post-Conviction Relief Act) petition was filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Harrisburg, Penn., by his attorney, Michael Wiseman of Philadelphia, representing him pro bono. The new federal filings, the Second Habeas Corpus Petition and Memorandum of Law and Motion to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, were filed by attorney Amy Gershenfeld Donnella of the Federal Community Defenders Office and Michael Wiseman, both of Philadelphia, Penn. The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation is co-counsel and assisted in the investigation and in overall support to Lorenzo.

For more information, to sign the petition and contribute, go to www.FreeLorenzoJohnson.org.

 

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2 thoughts on “US Court of Appeals rules against Cat Johnson’s challenge to his frame-up conviction

  1. La Tasha Williams

    Very well written. I will continue to support Lorenzo as he fights to overturn (again) his wrongful conviction.

    Reply
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