Innocence Arrested

Albert Johnson was exonerated for a crime he didn't commit, but not before spending over a decade in prison. Why guiltless people get jailed -- and how to stop it.

Albert Johnson grew up in Richmond, Calif., in a part of town where drug dealers loitered on the corner, gangs had both a visible and psychological presence, and drive-by shootings were not a surprise. Built small and lean like a running back, he is a product of this landscape: part punk, part fighter, part underdog, and part sweetheart.

He moved to the East Bay in 1971 when he was 10. His mother, Martha Johnson, had quit her job at a poultry factory in Monroe, La., and shuttled her six children west after divorcing her husband, a local sheriff.

The change was dramatic. In the South, the four rowdy brothers and their two younger sisters could play outdoors, and their father took the boys rabbit hunting. But Richmond, their new home, had -- and still has -- a jagged edge to it.

Albert Johnson, a 42-year-old former construction 
worker who spent more than a decade in prison, says 
he has never raped anybody.
Paolo Vescia
Albert Johnson, a 42-year-old former construction worker who spent more than a decade in prison, says he has never raped anybody.
Susan Rutberg, a professor at Golden Gate University, 
started an "Innocence Project" law school class  in 
2001.
Paolo Vescia
Susan Rutberg, a professor at Golden Gate University, started an "Innocence Project" law school class in 2001.

Mrs. Johnson cleaned motel rooms near Jack London Square in Oakland, where she labored long, exhausting hours at minimum wage. She left for work early in the morning, and sometimes returned after dark. Albert Johnson's first life lesson came quickly: You have to fend for yourself.

After graduating from Richmond High in 1980, Johnson signed up for classes at nearby Contra Costa College. Across the school gym where he practiced with the basketball team, he caught his first glimpse of Maria Mejia, a volleyball player and the woman who would later become his wife and the mother of his two children.

Johnson didn't have any grand career plans, and worked a variety of low-skill jobs -- janitor, liquor store clerk, security guard. With nothing promising on the horizon, he began using cocaine in his mid-20s, and was arrested for a drug possession in 1988. Though he was sent to a diversion program and never jailed, while on probation he was arrested for stealing a watch from a jewelry store. He sometimes failed court-mandated drug tests.

After the birth of his son in 1989, Johnson tried to change his ways, taking carpentry jobs throughout the East Bay. By the time he was 30, he had semiregular construction jobs and was contemplating marriage. Soon, Mejia was pregnant with their second child.

"I had a family, I was engaged," Johnson says, summing up his world. "Just doing the family thing, working."

But the trajectory of his life -- and his family's -- went markedly off course on Feb. 25, 1992. Johnson was driving home from a friend's house in his white Fiat at about 1 a.m. when he saw the swirl of red and blue police lights behind him. He was speeding. When the officer first approached his car, it seemed like a routine traffic stop.

But when the cop returned with the ticket, his demeanor had changed, and he told Johnson that he was being detained. When Johnson asked him why, the officer told him that the San Pablo police were looking for a rapist: a black man driving a small, white car.

That stop was to be the start of a long nightmare. Johnson was booked as the only suspect for the rape in San Pablo; while in custody, he was tagged for a second rape in neighboring Richmond. Ten months later, at the end of two trials, he was sentenced to a total of 39 years.

Johnson's case was one of spiraling errors -- questionable IDs, weak lawyering, destroyed evidence, release and then reimprisonment. By the time he was freed for good in late March of this year, he'd been in various California prisons for 10 years and 11 months. The entire time, he tirelessly filed writs on his own behalf; DNA evidence eventually proved him innocent of the Richmond crime. Currently out on parole, he is still working with lawyers from the Northern California Innocence Project to prove his claim: He has never raped anybody.

Today, Johnson is 42. An ex-convict and registered sex offender, he has been unable to find permanent work. He lives with his mother and abides by a 10 p.m. parole curfew. Though he got married to Maria Mejia in prison, the stress of incarceration strained their relationship, and she filed for divorce a year before he was exonerated. He's still trying to make up for lost time with his two children, now 13 and 11.

For Johnson and his family, the costs of what he sees as an unjust incarceration are immeasurable: How do you begin to calculate 10 years of squandered life?

For more than a decade, the problem of wrongful conviction in America has been portrayed as exceptional. In one highly publicized case after another, a convict is shown, through the use of DNA-related evidence, to have been undeniably innocent. These stories are emotionally compelling, but they carry an underlying message that innocent people are jailed only in extreme cases, that such events are rare, and that advances in genetic science are mitigating whatever systemic problem does exist.

The same lawyers and researchers who have used DNA evidence to free the innocent, however, have come to realize that wrongful conviction is far more common than some police and prosecutors want to admit. They know that -- by the most conservative of estimates -- thousands of innocent people are locked inside U.S. prisons, that DNA evidence alone will free few of them, and that every such imprisonment is a tragedy that works against the cause of justice. With every wrongful conviction, after all, a criminal goes unpunished.

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