After 51 years in prison on a wrongful conviction — 37 of which were spent in solitary confinement — ALC’s client, friend, and mentor Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson was released on August 11, 2021. His release was the result of an agreement with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, in which Mr. Johnson, then age 69, pled to a lesser offense allowing him to be released to his family and friends.
Mr. Johnson was convicted in the 1970 murder of Jerome Wakefield based solely on a signed statement that Mr. Johnson testified at trial he could not read. Mr. Johnson was arrested two months after his 18th birthday. He had only completed the fourth grade and did not learn to read until he was incarcerated in this case.
Evidence from the police file turned over to Mr. Johnson’s lawyers from the Abolitionist Law Center by the Conviction Integrity Unit in 2019, revealed that police had only obtained a statement implicating Mr. Johnson from a 15-year-old child that they had interrogated for 21 hours in a 30 hour period, including the last 15 hours consecutively. Not until more than 11 hours into that last interrogation did the child give a statement implicating himself and others, including Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson testified at trial that he was physically struck by police officers during his interrogation, matching the testimony of Gary Brame, who was also charged and tried separately for the murder. Mr. Brame said Philadelphia police beat him until he signed a confession. He was sentenced to 7 ½ to 15 years. In 2020, Mr. Brame signed a statement admitting to the murder and disavowing that Mr. Johnson had anything to do with the crime.
The Philadelphia District Attorney Office offered to resolve this case on the basis of suppressed evidence of police misconduct if Mr. Johnson pled to a lesser offense.
The Abolitionist Law Center fought for five years to bring Mr. Johnson home from an unjust sentence and conviction, however no one fought harder than Mr. Johnson and his family during the 51 years of his imprisonment. While ALC believes Mr. Johnson to be innocent of the charges he was convicted of, Mr. Johnson made the decision that was in the best interests of his family and decided to plead guilty to a lesser offense to be reunited with his family after decades of incarceration.
ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook, who during his 27 years of incarceration was mentored by Mr. Johnson, noted: “Arthur Cetewayo Johnson was a beacon of strength and hope to younger prisoners like myself who entered the prison system lost souls. Mr. Johnson was a mentor to so many of us who found ourselves struggling to survive the daily grind of prison life. I don’t believe we found justice in this case, however we found freedom for Mr. Johnson, after 51 years of incarceration.”