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.

After hanging up the phone and wading through the landscape of case files and paperwork in his cubicle, Myslin dons the coat to his suit and heads out of his drab room, which he tries to liven up with Folsom Prison postcards and letters from inmates. Striding so briskly that a companion must run to keep pace with him, he exits the Public Defender's Office and crosses to the other side of Bryant Street to enter the dim, cavernous Hall of Justice.

Now the adventure begins. The criminal courts have recently moved their records room, and it's unclear where Myslin should go to find Jeff or his files. He decides to inquire upstairs, in the old criminal court clerk's office.

On the third floor, Myslin walks into a now-abandoned space, where a series of unenthusiastic-looking city employees walk back and forth behind the long counter, lugging boxes and carrying computer equipment. At long last, Jeff, a tall and bookish fellow, appears, wheeling a dolly.

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.

"I've got some files for you, 'bout yay high," he says to Myslin, indicating a 2-foot stack. "And we're purging old evidence, old guns -- 'the arsenal.' I found a gun for 8824401."

Myslin immediately recognizes the case number: It's one that he's investigating, and it's been difficult to find evidence that could be tested for DNA clues (see Page 20). This is the third time that material from one of his cases has emerged serendipitously.

"It was misfiled," Jeff continues. "In the wrong box. But I looked at the number and I thought, 'Oh, it's one of those [Innocence Project] cases.'"

"It was one of those cases that didn't have any evidence left," Myslin tells him, a note of disbelief in his voice.

"Well, I don't know what you can do with it now," Jeff says, and offers to show Myslin the gun.

Jeff tells Myslin to meet him back on the first floor. As we sprint down the hallway at Myslin's usual brisk clip, the public defender shakes his head incredulously. "I hear stories like that every day," he says. "Here I am, trying to locate evidence in a case, and it's misfiled, and they're about to purge it. You can see the drama to it."

Once downstairs, Jeff takes Myslin to his cubicle and opens an innocuous file box on the floor, in which pistols, semiautomatics, and .32-caliber guns -- enough firepower to arm a small militia -- have been tossed haphazardly on top of each other.

Jeff begins digging through the box, tossing aside guns as if he were going through a department store sale bin. Finally, he holds up a smooth, black handgun with a tag dangling from it that reads "8824401."

Myslin takes it in his hand and inspects it. Because the gun wasn't stored in a plastic bag, any fingerprints or potential DNA samples once on it were lost long ago. It's useless to him.

For Myslin and other Innocence Project members, locating testable DNA evidence for an inmate with strong claims of innocence is one of the greatest challenges of the job. "A lot of stuff is destroyed," Myslin explains. "I've had numerous incidents where they tell me that the evidence doesn't exist, and later it turns up. A lot of times, it's a matter of luck."

A national bill proposed by the Innocence Project Network in 2001 -- which has yet to pass -- seeks to enact post-conviction DNA testing laws. Thirty states have passed such laws; Albert Johnson took advantage of California's in 2001.

But finding innocents in prison and helping them seek exoneration, one by one, will not begin to address the real problem: a defective investigative system that charges and convicts thousands of innocent people.

In November 2000, Johnson went to the prison law library and picked up a convict self-help newsletter. Skimming its contents, he found an article that described a new California law that would allow inmates to request post-conviction DNA testing. Johnson felt a surge of hope. Everyone had ignored his request to get the testing done before his trials, and now he could get it done on his own.

He studied the law eagerly and began writing two motions -- one for each rape case -- that he hoped would set him on the path to freedom. It took him two weeks to finish the two 18-page documents, each complete with legal case citations and exhibits. He sent them to the courts straightaway.

Within a month, he received a letter from the California Superior Court telling him that his motions had been rejected. Frustrated but not defeated, Johnson returned to the law library and showed the letter to a fellow inmate who had been an attorney before his incarceration. The inmate looked the document over and explained that Johnson had filed his motions before the bill had become law, and that he should try again in a year.

For safekeeping, Johnson kept the pages in sealed envelopes in a box of legal papers in his cell. In November 2001 he put the documents in the mail again, as if floating another message in a bottle.

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