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.

California, however, currently complies with only 6 percent of these recommendations, according to an article that will be published in November in the Santa Clara Law Review. In San Francisco, prosecutors say they are considering changes. "[Looking into wrongful convictions] is something that is high on our list as a result of the Tennison and Goff cases [two local men who were recently exonerated]," says Mark MacNamara of the S.F. District Attorney's Office. He says the office is asking the city for $300,000 to hire a few more lawyers to look into potentially wrongful convictions; that it will dedicate training time to the issue; and that "police and prosecutors need to work together to ensure that informants are telling the truth." Capt. Paul Chignell of the San Francisco Police Department says that wrongful convictions are a concern, and that the SFPD has cooperated with local Innocence Projects. There are no official police policies now in place, however, to prevent wrongful convictions. And in a state with citizens eager to support bills that exact harsher and harsher punishments for criminals, it is unlikely that these key criminal justice reforms will happen any time soon at the state level; most California legislators view them as a form of political suicide.

"It's a difficult [political] climate to try to suggest reforms in the criminal justice system," says one legislative staffer. "I think it's a concern that [legislators] are afraid to be tarred with the brush of being soft on crime. Whether it's true or not that they are soft on crime is immaterial. You can be smart on crime, but you can also be accused of being soft on crime."

Politically powerful law enforcement and prosecutors' groups have also opposed legislative efforts to address wrongful convictions. In California, a bill requiring the videotaping of suspect interviews was defeated last year -- as was a weaker 2003 bill merely suggesting that interviews be taped -- following strong opposition from prosecutors and police. Even the post-conviction DNA testing law, the least controversial of all, took eight months of political wrangling to pass. (A spokesperson for the California Attorney General's Office said, "We are not involved in ... any of these proposals, or discussions about these changes.")

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.

"Our system has always been that we would rather have 1,000 guilty walk free than [put] one innocent [person] in prison -- that's where we all operate from," says Dave LaBahn of the California District Attorneys Association. "But based upon a single case [of wrongful conviction], we would legislate reforms statewide? Especially a state of our size -- is that the right thing to do?"

"Can you do 'em?" asks Spike Helmick, president of the California Peace Officers' Association, when questioned about making reforms to police lineups, reconsidering jailhouse informants, and taping confessions. "Yes. But I'm not so sure the need is as strong as some believe. But then again, some people believe that there is not a need at all."

Albert Johnson knows all too well the need for change beyond post-conviction DNA testing -- and the ruinous impact on lives and families if deeper reforms continue to be ignored. Though he maintains his innocence in the San Pablo case, its destroyed rape kit cannot be tested for DNA. The Northern California Innocence Project is trying to test other biological material to prove that the San Pablo police got the wrong man. It remains an uphill battle: Both the victim and the District Attorney's Office continue to believe that Johnson is guilty.

The first few weeks after Johnson was released for good, he spent his days staring out the window, absorbing the sights of the world as he rode BART trains from one end of the Richmond line to the other. "I been sitting in prison all this time; I don't need to be sitting at home," he says. "I like BART."

He's been out for about eight months, but he still gets up every day at around 4:30 a.m., hours he grew used to keeping in prison. In the quiet of early morning, he prays for guidance, and spends a little time thinking. Then he showers, irons his clothes, and leaves the house. Occasionally, he meets with Lola Vollen, the director of the Berkeley-based Life After Exoneration Project, to learn how to send an e-mail, get help signing up for Medi-Cal, or talk about his future goals (he says he wants to find a stable job and help support his kids). Most days, he heads to San Francisco to assist a friend with odd jobs -- like painting or installing mirrors -- sometimes laboring for 12 hours straight. A few of the young men he works with ask him questions about life in prison. Johnson answers gladly; it's nice to be an expert in something.

In his free time, he is consumed by sports. Some Sundays, he goes to Oakland Raiders games with his cousin, who has season tickets. Other times, he'll shoot hoops with some friends. Friday or Saturday nights, he tries to bond with his kids in the only way he knows how -- by finding a spot on the bleachers to watch his son play football or his daughter play soccer.

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