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.

"Some people have said that [these reforms] would reduce valid identifications, or they would be too expensive or too difficult to implement, but these problems have not come forward," says David Angel, the Santa Clara deputy district attorney who spearheaded the use of the new lineup procedures. "There is compliance; the training is not difficult; good IDs are made, and presumably they're more accurate."

Albert Johnson, for one, did not get the benefit of any of these improved lineup measures when he was arrested in 1992.

Johnson filled his life in prison with study. Except for three days of work in a prison kitchen that nearly drove him to vegetarianism, he refused to take a job while he was in jail. "I needed to be in that law library instead of working in they sweatshops, so to speak," he explains. "To me, being in prison for something I didn't do, I looked at it like modern-day slavery. So I knew I had to go to the law library, and whatever it took I was going to go."

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 
Paolo Vescia
Susan Rutberg, a professor at Golden Gate University, started an "Innocence Project" law school class in 2001.

Comments like these hint at Johnson's aggressive, self-righteous side, and he admits that he frequently resorted to blows when he was incarcerated. His prison disciplinary record is by no measure pristine: He has been punished for "insubordination/insolence," "interference with staff duties," using "abusive and obscene language," "assault/disruptive conduct," and fighting.

But that pugnacious spirit served him well in the courts. He taught himself how to write writs and motions, and once he got the hang of it, he flooded the legal system with what he calls "guerrilla law." He filed writs asking for a new attorney. He filed writs asking the court to allow him contact visits with his son. He filed writs asking for a "snack sack" to accompany each of his meals. He filed supplements to his trial appeals, and his own habeas corpus petitions.

His new jailhouse legal career, coupled with his anger and aggression, made Johnson unpopular with the prison staff, and he was moved about half a dozen times. His frequent relocation sometimes made it difficult for his family to visit, though Mejia tried to bring the kids to see their father twice a week.

Johnson's family supported his writ-writing habit by sending him money for copies or helping him type up complaints. His brother Dave stayed the closest to him while he was in prison, and still remembers how difficult it was to leave him there.

Sitting in an empty gym at Contra Costa College on a recent evening, Johnson and Dave recall their time apart. Dave coaches football at the college, and on this night a whistle continues to swing around his neck. Johnson, who's fashion conscious and a bit vain, is dapperly dressed in a pressed goldenrod button-down shirt, black slacks, and gleaming shoes; despite the dimness of the building's fluorescent lights, he wears designer sunglasses. Pulling up a chair, Johnson leans in toward Dave to listen to him talk.

"It felt good seeing him, but it didn't feel good leaving," Dave says, thinking back to the prison visits. "We left, man; he's going back in there. No telling what going to happen to him. That was the bad part. The good part was seeing him."

I ask Dave how he explained to his kids why their Uncle Albert was in prison for 10 years. Johnson looks thoughtfully at his brother.

"I was just thinking about Devon [Dave's son]," Johnson says finally. "He came to see me one time, and after two or three times, we was playing. We just playing and stuff, and time really goes, and he wanted me to leave with them. He said, 'Man, why can't you leave with us?' I said, 'I got to stay here.' 'But why you got to stay here for something you didn't do?' And I said, 'This is how it is.' He said, 'Why don't you just tell 'em you didn't do it and they let you go?'"

The brothers chuckle wryly.

Johnson continues, "'It don't work like that, man.' And I just thought about that. It was so funny, but it hurted, too. But I couldn't, you know, it hurt so much I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. And when I went back to my cell, I did. And you know ...."

Johnson stops talking and removes his sunglasses to rub the tears in his eyes.

Dave stares into the farthest corner of the room. "God, I feel bad for people who really can't do more than they can; they get into a situation where they really can't help themselves," he says. "I don't know, this system we have, it either work or it don't. Once you in it, you tied up in it. They got you and you're never completely free."

It's a typical morning in July, and the phone on Paul Myslin's cluttered desk in the San Francisco Public Defender's Office is ringing. Myslin, a determined young lawyer with a quirky sense of humor, is a one-man Innocence Project whose mission is to investigate possible cases of wrongful murder or rape convictions in San Francisco. As a result, the person on the phone could be an inmate calling collect to ask for help, a police lieutenant delivering news about physical evidence, or Susan Rutberg of Golden Gate University phoning to discuss a case (the two satellite offices often work together). This time, though, it's a criminal court clerk named Jeff telling Myslin that case files he ordered are available for viewing.

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