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.

Once she was in the car, the man made awkward small talk and drove Sharon G. to a secluded intersection in San Pablo, where he fondled her breasts, forced her to perform oral sex, and then raped her. Afterward, he allowed her to leave. She ran to the house of a friend, who took her to the police station.

About an hour later, Johnson was driving on 23rd Street in Richmond, going 42 mph in a 25 mph zone. Police officers parked at a fast-food restaurant noticed Johnson's car speeding by, and began pacing it with their own for several blocks. To get Johnson to stop, Officer Roy Smally reached toward the center of his dashboard to turn on his sirens, and accidentally hit a switch for the radio scanner. After Johnson pulled over, Smally got out of the car and left the scanner on; his partner, veteran Ron Berry, remained in the passenger seat.

Smally walked up to Johnson's window and asked him if he knew he had been speeding. Johnson admitted that he probably had.

Bad lawyering and police misconduct helped tie Albert 
Johnson -- the wrong person -- to a 1991 rape.
Paolo Vescia
Bad lawyering and police misconduct helped tie Albert Johnson -- the wrong person -- to a 1991 rape.
At the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, Paul 
Myslin is a one-man Innocence Project.
Paolo Vescia
At the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, Paul Myslin is a one-man Innocence Project.

As Johnson handed him an expired driver's license, Smally, then an officer-in-training, noticed that Johnson had a chrome bar in his car. He asked Johnson to get out and stand near the curb while he inspected the Fiat's interior for a weapon. The metal bar turned out to be a ratchet wrench.

Meanwhile, Berry heard a call go out on the radio scanner: San Pablo police were looking for an African-American rape suspect driving a small, white car. Berry looked up at the vehicle stopped in front of him and called the San Pablo police immediately. Berry waited until Smally had inspected the car for a weapon, and then told the police trainee about the turn of events. By that time, another Richmond police officer had arrived on the scene as backup, and two officers stood watch over Johnson as they waited for the San Pablo police to arrive.

After several minutes had passed, Johnson asked the cops why they were still holding him. "[The police] said, 'We just got a call over the radio, and your car and you fit the description of a [rape] that just took place,'" Johnson says. "And I'm like, 'What?' And so that's how it all began."

The San Pablo police were just about to take Sharon G. to the hospital for a victim's exam, but the officer assigned to the case, David Krastof, decided to drive her to the intersection where Johnson stood near his parked Fiat for what police call a "show-up identification." Research reveals that show-ups are a "problematic procedure," as Iowa State University's Gary Wells, a leading expert on eyewitness identification, puts it, but officers use them when they don't have probable cause to hold a suspect but don't want to let a potential criminal go free.

About six minutes later, Krastof arrived in a patrol car with Sharon G. He reminded her that the person she would see might not be the perpetrator, and then asked her to look carefully at Johnson as he stood next to his car. Studying Johnson as the patrol car drove by, Sharon G. told Krastof that she was certain Johnson was her rapist. She also said Johnson's car was the one she was raped in (she described it in court as looking like a "Datsun five-speed"). Satisfied with the strong identification, Krastof drove away without coming to a complete stop.

Johnson was arrested immediately and taken to the San Pablo Police Department, where he was booked, and then to a nearby hospital so police could get a DNA sample from him for comparison with the rape kit. (Despite Johnson's repeated requests for this test, it was never performed; the rape kit was destroyed before any comparison could be made.) The next morning, Johnson refused to give a statement, and kept asking for an attorney.

Johnson would become the only suspect in the Sharon G. rape case. Two months later, he had been charged with the crime, and after a four-day trial in November 1992, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in state prison.

Word of the arrest had spread quickly within the police department, and on the day Johnson was detained, it had suddenly occurred to a Richmond detective that Johnson might be the culprit in an unsolved rape case from December 1991.

In that incident, Johanna V. had been jogging at the Richmond High School track one morning when an African-American man walked up to her and asked if they could talk. She said no, but the stranger told her he would shoot her if she didn't stop. The assailant made Johanna V. walk to an area behind a nearby building, where he raped her and forced her to perform oral sex. Afterward, the rapist made Johanna V. give him her watch and a gold chain, and they walked back to the track, where he talked about sports and how he was angry with his ex-girlfriend. After half an hour, the rapist told Johanna V. to leave. When she got home, her brother called the police.

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