by Mumia Abu-Jamal
In the street, he was known as ‘Cat’ – a young man living in the hustling life. That’s all he knew.
But Dec. 15, 1995, changed his life. His life became one no longer in his control. For several months thereafter, he and another man were charged with killing Tarajai Williams in an alleyway next door to a bar in Harrisburg’s Hill District.
Although he wasn’t charged with actually killing Williams, police claimed he was the lookout while another man shot him.
Except to this day, not a single witness has ever said they saw him do so. In fact, just hours after Williams’ body was found, one eyewitness named three other men as the killers – men who, although identified, were never charged.
They had who they wanted: Lorenzo Johnson – aka “Cat” – and, like a pit bull on a pork chop, they wouldn’t let go.
Uneducated, street-smart but not book-smart, in fact, illiterate, Johnson was in over his head. He tried to convince his lawyer that he didn’t do it, wasn’t there and wasn’t even in the state when it happened. But the lawyer went by police reports, didn’t fight for him, and, sure enough, he and another man, Corey Walker, were soon convicted of murder and conspiracy.
Alibi witnesses, threatened by police, disappeared.
Years went by, and Cat fought a lonely and desperate battle. He studied for his GED, passed it, and then studied the law. Day by day, month by month, year by year, he fought for his freedom and exoneration.
On Sept. 28, 1998, he caught a brief glimpse of hope when a Pennsylvania Superior Court judge wrote a brief but powerful opinion in his appeal. Judge Schiller (later to become a federal judge) wrote, of Johnson:
“I believe that there is no direct evidence, nor can any be inferred, linking [Lorenzo] Johnson to the death of Tarajai Williams, nor any agreement … which resulted in Williams’ death.” – Commonwealth v. Johnson, No. 847 Harrisburg 1997, Pennsylvania Superior Court, Schiller, J., dissenting op: (9/28/1980)
One would think that would be the end of it, for hadn’t a powerful state appeals court judge ruled that there was no evidence against him? Yes, but a dissenting opinion has no force in law. Two judges voted against him – one voted for him.
It would be 13 years later, in 2011, before judges would vote for him again. This time, the other way: two for him, one against. On Oct. 4, 2011, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled much like Schiller had done over a decade before, declaring an “insufficiency of evidence” – the legal equivalent of an acquittal.
Three months later Cat would walk out of prison, a free man.
But the end is not written, for despite having filed a late cert. petition, months later, in an unusual unsigned per curiam opinion – also with no oral arguments nor briefs – the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated this evidence-free conviction.
After 6 months of freedom, Cat did something rare for any man in his situation. He left his wife and children and his job – and turned himself in.
Here he sits, a year later, a cat in a cage, denied the most fundamental facets of justice. In Cat’s case, evidence was irrelevant.
© Copyright 2013 Mumia Abu-Jamal. Read Mumia’s latest book, “The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America,” co-authored by Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill, available from Third World Press, TWPBooks.com. Keep updated at www.freemumia.com. For Mumia’s commentaries, visit www.prisonradio.org. For recent interviews with Mumia, visit www.blockreportradio.com. Encourage the media to publish and broadcast Mumia’s commentaries and interviews. Send our brotha some love and light: Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM 8335, SCI-Mahanoy, 301 Morea Road, Frackville, PA 17932.
Lorenzo Johnson, an innocent man – freed from prison, only to be re-incarcerated!
by Rachel Wolkenstein, Attorney
The American criminal justice system is a frame-up system. Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson’s story is an excruciatingly clear example of an innocent man caught in a corrupt process. For the refusal to plead guilty to a murder he did not commit, the state has worked overtime to keep him locked up for life. Evidence was falsified by the police and prosecution. And when a federal appeals court ruled this so-called evidence was legally insufficient to convict, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and reinstated his conviction.
A year ago, Lorenzo Johnson was enjoying life as a free man – freed after spending 16 years in Pennsylvania prisons. As an innocent man, he long ago had turned down a plea offer of five to 10 years. Over the years Johnson fought his conviction with tenacity and courage and integrity, reaching out to over 400 organizations and individuals. A youth when he entered prison, he educated himself and filed pro se state and federal challenges to his conviction.
No witness testified to actually witnessing the murder or Lorenzo Johnson’s involvement. No ballistics evidence exists linking Lorenzo Johnson to the shooting. Lorenzo Johnson’s conviction was obtained by police favors and threats made to key prosecution witnesses, who initially said they knew nothing of the murder or said that Lorenzo Johnson was not present.
In fact, Johnson was in New York City at the time of the murder. The prosecutor, an assistant state attorney general, made a plea agreement with one of Johnson’s alibi witnesses that was not disclosed to the defense in violation of due process. After making the deal, this witness testified for the prosecution and two weeks later was released from prison.
In October 2011, Lorenzo Johnson won the reversal of his conviction. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his murder conviction was based on insufficient evidence. This was a legal decision tantamount to an acquittal. The state was legally required to free Lorenzo Johnson. The prosecution was barred from subjecting him to a new trial.
The Pennsylvania state attorney general was left with only one possible challenge to the ruling of the federal appeals court – the grant of certiorari (review) by the U.S. Supreme Court. This was statistically and legally unlikely. The district court judge who had initially denied Johnson’s habeas corpus petition held a bond hearing. Family and friends as well as four Pennsylvania corrections officers testified on behalf of Johnson. Over the objection of the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Lorenzo Johnson was released on January 18, 2012.
Johnson reunited with his family – mother, brother, sister, children. He had a new wife, a job and was active fighting for the release of others who had been framed up. Johnson thought the nightmare of being sentenced to life without parole – slow death row – was over. But after a spectacularly unusual turn of events – even within the workings of this criminal injustice system – four months later he was back in a Pennsylvania prison, SCI Mahanoy.
In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court summarily reversed the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals’ grant of habeas corpus relief. Justice Anton Scalia accepted the state’s petition although it was filed late. The full court reinstated Johnson’s conviction in a per curium decision without the usual procedure of full legal briefing and oral argument. It sent the case back to the 3rd Circuit for further review.
Lorenzo Johnson was ordered back to prison and he voluntarily turned himself in on June 14, 2012. His lawyers continued with new motions in the Court of Appeals. But after waiting almost a year for a ruling, on April 17, 2013, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals caved in, issued an order vacating its earlier reversal of Johnson’s conviction and denied Johnson’s motion for reversal on grounds of prosecution suppression of a deal made with a key witness. The U.S. Supreme Court and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals cited the 1996 Clinton administration Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) to justify its decisions.
Lorenzo Johnson is fighting for his freedom over again in the Pennsylvania state and federal courts. His case is now invoked by prosecutors and courts throughout the United States as Supreme Court precedent to deny challenges to state convictions on the ground of insufficient evidence. It has eviscerated habeas corpus relief for a wide layer of state prisoners.
As Johnson stated after the April 2013 3rd Circuit decision: “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 husband, 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.”
Join the struggle to Free Lorenzo Johnson!
Rachel Wolkenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.