December 18, 2013, Harrisburg, PA. Over 1,000 petition signatures and letters were delivered to the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Kathleen Kane on Wednesday, December 18, 2013, demanding that her office dismiss the murder charges against Lorenzo Johnson, an innocent man, and release him from prison. New legal filings are pending in the Pennsylvania courts with new evidence of Johnson’s innocence – including his presence in New York City at the time of the Harrisburg murder and the identity of the actual killers – as well as police and prosecutorial misconduct. The Attorney General has until January 1, 2014 to respond to Johnson’s new state court appeal.This action was organized by the Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson, spearheaded by Lorenzo’s wife, Tazza and other family and friends, to send a message to the Attorney General that an international campaign is growing and will not stop until Lorenzo is free.
A press conference followed the delivery of the petitions. As Tazza stated, “1,000 signatures means we are not in this alone … I won’t stop until he’s home. There is nothing and no one that can stop me from fighting for what’s right.” Also speaking at the event were Jeffrey Deskovic, an Exoneree and founder of the Deskovic Foundation for Justice; William Lopez, New York Exoneree; Bret Grote, Esq., Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center; and Rachel Wolkenstein, an attorney working with the Campaign.
Johnson was released from prison once before, after the October 2011 reversal of his conviction by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals due to insufficient evidence. This is equivalent to a judicial acquittal. In January 2012, Johnson reunited with his family, worked in construction and spoke out for others who are innocent and imprisoned. After a last minute petition by the PA Attorney General, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed this decision, reinstated Lorenzo Johnson’s conviction and ordered him back to prison to serve a sentence of life without parole.
Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 16 years in prison in New York for a rape and murder he did not commit before being cleared by DNA evidence, set up a foundation to help other innocent people. He drove Lorenzo Johnson back to prison after the US Supreme Court reinstated his murder conviction. Deskovic said, “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do since being released, to turn somebody back to prison. It was a very emotional and difficult journey on the way there…. As we were rotating drivers, he [Lorenzo] said, you know, look how crazy this is, I’m driving myself back to prison to resume a life sentence without parole for a crime I’m innocent of.“
Deskovic also announced the launch of a confidential tip line (917 929-2964) to receive information that could lead to additional new evidence.
Innocent and Framed
Bret Grote explained the history of Johnson’s frame–up. “Although Johnson was not even accused of participating in the shooting, only of allegedly being near the alley where the murder took place, he was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1996 at the age of 22. Lorenzo was not even in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on the night of the murder of Tarajay Williams. He was 170 miles away, back home in New York when the murder occurred. For several months, police detectives threatened Johnson with a murder charge unless he falsely accused a friend of the murder and drug dealing. When Johnson refused he was charged with first-degree murder as an accessory to murder.
“There was no ballistics or other physical evidence against Johnson. The main prosecution witness was a confirmed drug addict who had motive to testify in order to secure favorable treatment from the police. She now admits that she lied at trial. Other witnesses admit they were coerced into lying or staying silent, threatened by detectives with being falsely charged with crimes or promised leniency. New evidence points to the actual perpetrators.”
On August 5, 2013, Johnson’s attorney Michael Wiseman filed an appeal petition in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas seeking a new trial based upon Lorenzo Johnson’s actual innocence supported by newly discovered evidence. The filing contains new sworn affidavits from a police detective, from people who had knowledge of the murder, knowledge of the real killer(s), information that discredits the key prosecution witness, Carla Brown, as well as evidence that Johnson was in New York at the time of the murder and could not possibly be involved.
The newly discovered evidence contains numerous instances of unconstitutional conduct on the part of the police and prosecution in Johnson’s case. Johnson and his trial counsel were never told that the prosecution’s star witness, Carla Brown, was questioned on the night of the shooting and was worked on for months by detectives to get her to implicate Johnson. Key pages of early police reports have been withheld from Johnson and his attorneys for eighteen years.
Suquan Ripply Boyd also provided an affidavit to Johnson, revealing for the first time that he was coerced by Detective Kevin Duffin into providing a false statement. Boyd and Johnson were in New York City on December 14-15, 1995, at the time the murder occurred. Prior to the trial, Boyd signed a statement that he could not recall the exact date after Duffin threatened him with a longer prison sentence than the one he was serving at the time on an unrelated case.
In an interview with AP on the day of the press conference, Wiseman spoke to the legal import of the new filings, “These affidavits constitute newly discovered evidence – they make clear that the Commonwealth withheld from Mr. Johnson exculpatory evidence that would have demonstrated his innocence, would have destroyed the credibility of the already highly suspect primary witness against him, and would have unquestionably changed the outcome of the trial.”
At the Harrisburg press conference, Rachel Wolkenstein spoke of the fight to free Lorenzo Johnson, one of the 100,000 innocent men and women imprisoned in the United States, many the result of the ‘war on drugs’ that has driven mass incarceration. She quoted from Johnson’s statement, ‘Intolerable’: ‘I speak for all innocent prisoners. Justice for us is exoneration or vindication of all charges. Anything besides that fuels more and future corruption.” When asked about inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system, Wolkenstein replied, “It is a system of injustice, of racial and class bias, and thoroughly corrupt.”
This action was covered by network ABC-TV, and broadcast in Harrisburg, PA and in NYC as well. The Associated Press release, titled, “Allies of briefly freed Pa. inmate seek dismissal,” was printed in dozens of newspapers coast to coast, including the Washington Post and SF Chronicle. It was filmed by political videographer Lamar Williams and covered on the Innocence Project Blog.
PA Attorney General Kane Response
The press conference and delivery of petitions compelled a response from the Attorney General and lets her know there is a growing international campaign fighting for Lorenzo and his immediate freedom.
Last week we were told the Office of the Attorney General is “not set up” to receive petitions. However, on Wednesday the Attorney General’s office sent their director of constituent services, Philip McCarthy, to receive the petitions from Tazza, Jeffrey Deskovic, and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center.
Speaking to the Associated Press on Wednesday, spokesperson for the Attorney General, Joe Peters, said, “Obviously, the Supreme Court accepted our argument. However, Attorney General Kane is always interested, in every case, in justice. If there is new evidence or information, we are interested in that.” They also announced they are meeting with Lorenzo Johnson’s lawyers on January 15, 2014.
Contrary to Peters’ statement, however, the Attorney General’s office has already opposed hearing Lorenzo Johnson’s new evidence and won the denial of Lorenzo Johnson’s Motion to File a Second Writ of Habeas Corpus in the federal court. The Third Circuit adopted Attorney General Kane’s outrageous assertion that Johnson had not made out a prima facie claim for relief.
Build the Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson
This Action was an important step in the fight to free Lorenzo Johnson. We need to increase the numbers of people who sign Lorenzo’s Freedom Petition, write letters and help publicize his case. Add your support to the over 1000 petition signatories who come from a dozen countries and throughout the U.S, including Alina Dolat, Amnesty International, France; Heinz Leitner, a retired Federal Minister of Labour in Vienna; PA Human Rights Coalition-Fed-Up; Abolitionist Law Center; Decarcerate PA; IAC, Philadelphia, PA, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Pam Africa, Francis Goldin, Noelle Hanrahan, Zahara Hill, Chris Kinder, Anne Lamb, Ralph Poynter, Carole Seligman and hundreds others. Regular reports on Lorenzo Johnson’s case and his own commentaries can be found in: Justice Denied, Prison Radio, SF Bay View News and Socialist Viewpoint.
Lorenzo to All Supporters of his Fight for Freedom, December 18, 2013: