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.

Despite Johnson's exoneration, the Department of Corrections seemed to want to keep him in prison.

In January 2001, about the time that Johnson was asking the state to test the rape kits in both of his cases, prison guards found a sharpened piece of metal in his jail cell and slapped him with a weapons violation.

Johnson argued vociferously that he and his cellmate, Zachary McPeak, had been set up, but prison guards figured he was lying, and he was found guilty of the charge during a March 2001 prison hearing. As punishment, 360 days were deducted from Johnson's "good time" credits, and he was moved to another prison and put in solitary confinement.

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.

But in August 2001, the truth came out. An inmate had sent a letter to the warden admitting that a prison guard had helped some white supremacists he knew plant the knife in Johnson and McPeak's cell. During McPeak's hearing on the matter, the charges were dropped.

No one bothered to notify Johnson. In fact, he didn't learn about the new evidence until February 2002, when McPeak was coincidentally transferred to the same Los Angeles-area jail.

The first time they talked, McPeak updated Johnson on the dropped charge and gave him copies of all the documents from his hearing. Johnson immediately began filing appeals with the Department of Corrections. For almost eight months he got the bureaucratic runaround. The weapons charge was still unresolved when Johnson left the prison in October 2002, after he was exonerated in the Richmond case.

It would come back to haunt him. Four days after he was released, Johnson was put back into custody.

He was shopping with his sister Diane when he learned that there was a problem. Their mother called Diane's cell phone to say that Johnson's parole officer wanted him to call immediately. When Johnson finally returned the call several hours later, his parole officer told him that he needed to report to his office the next day, for reasons that couldn't be discussed on the phone.

The next morning Johnson met his parole officer at about 9. The officer told him that the Department of Corrections had forgotten to add in the 360 days of credit lost for the weapons charge, and he had to go back to prison. His new release date would be August 2003.

Johnson couldn't believe it. His sister, who had driven him to the parole office, became hysterical. Johnson asked to use the phone and called his mother and his attorney.

"My mother was going crazy," Johnson recalls. "My sister was crying at the parole office. I had to calm her down. It was crazy. I can't even explain it. Even the parole officers, they weren't even understanding it. I couldn't believe it, but it was like, after all them years and everything I been through, it was like nothing surprises or amaze me."

After he was reincarcerated, Johnson contacted the Northern California Innocence Project, and lawyers there helped him file a writ of habeas corpus with documents proving the knife was a setup. Within a month, the state attorney general agreed that the charges should be dropped and the "good time" credits restored. Johnson, exonerated yet again, was to be rereleased in late December 2002, just in time to spend Christmas with his family.

But he didn't spend the holidays with his loved ones. Before Johnson could be released, the Department of Corrections violated its own regulations and reopened an assault allegation that dated back to May 2002 -- more than six months after the fact.

In that incident, Johnson, who was in solitary confinement at the time, allegedly threw a food tray and grabbed two officers by the arm through the cell's food slot, then bit them. (He says it was in self-defense; he claims he bit the officers to make them release their hold on hisarm because he felt they might break it.) Soon after the incident, the Department of Corrections referred the matter to the L.A. District Attorney's Office, which dropped the charges.

Johnson figured the case was closed, until the allegations were revived just as he was going to be released a second time. During hastily organized proceedings held in December 2002, the Department of Corrections found Johnson guilty of battery and assault. The ruling took away 150 more days of "good time" credits, giving Johnson a third new release date: March 2003.

The Innocence Project helped Johnson file yet another writ of habeas corpus, claiming the department had "pursued the battery allegations against Mr. Johnson in retribution for his efforts to exonerate himself of his convictions and of the weapon incident."

The writ was denied in April 2003, but by then Johnson had served out all his time and been released. The charges hung over his head for a few months -- with the Sharon G. conviction, these two assaults could have been his second and third strikes -- until the L.A. District Attorney's Office sent word that it had, once again, decided to drop the case.


As the Innocence Project's research has shown, basic criminal justice system reforms -- like improving police lineup procedures, videotaping confessions, and scrutinizing the use of jailhouse informants -- can help prevent innocent people from going to jail in the first place. A bill incorporating these reforms has already been passed by the Illinois Legislature, where a blue-ribbon commission recommended that the state adopt 85 policy changes -- addressing the six causes of wrongful conviction identified by the Innocence Project Network -- to prevent guiltless people from being imprisoned. (Though these reforms were written with capital punishment in mind, some will likely affect everyone who comes in contact with the Illinois justice system.)

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