John “Yahya” Moore released from prison after 27 years

ALC Attorney Nia Holston celebrating with John “Yahya” Moore on his freedom day.

Jul 12, 2023

On July 11, 2023, after almost twenty-seven years in prison on a wrongful conviction, John “Yahya” Moore left SCI Phoenix with his freedom. His release was granted after an agreement with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to plead to a lesser offense in exchange for time served. Mr. Moore will be reunited with his family and friends after vigorously working to overturn his conviction throughout his unjust imprisonment. He is a member of a group of wrongfully convicted men colloquially known to others as “The Firm,” who learned the law and helped themselves and other prisoners litigate their cases from inside prison walls. 

“The circumstances of John’ Yahya’ Moore’s case – a conviction grounded in scant evidence, a District Attorney’s Office and lead prosecutor emboldened to pursue charges despite the weak evidence, a court-appointed attorney who abdicated his responsibility to investigate and vigorously defend this matter, and a trial judge willing to convict – are all the predictable but maddening result of a system designed to crush Black people under its weight. But Mr. Moore was not crushed,” said Nia Holston, Mr. Moore’s lead counsel from the Abolitionist Law Center.

Sentenced to life without parole for second degree murder for a 1996 robbery in which two men were shot and one died, Mr. Moore’s conviction rested on the incredible, compromised testimony of Mr. Moore’s co-defendant in a bench trial, who testified in exchange for a lighter sentence. Defense counsel called no witnesses, conducted little to no investigation, and did nothing with sworn affidavits from potential witnesses who had information about the shooting that pointed to another suspect.

Crucially, the Commonwealth failed to turn over a list that included a credible alternate suspect, violating Mr. Moore’s constitutional rights. If Mr. Moore’s trial counsel had access to that list, which included the names of people who had been recently arrested for drug related offenses in the area near the murder (this was relevant because an eyewitness to the murder stated to police that she knew the perpetrators as two drug-dealers from the neighborhood), counsel could have conducted the necessary investigation that would have likely resulted in a different outcome at trial. 

His decades-long incarceration highlights the rampant injustices within the criminal legal system that result in it prioritizing convictions over accuracy, creating an epidemic of incarcerating people for crimes they did not commit.  

Dr. Andrew Scott, a nationally recognized expert in police practices, procedures, and investigations noted the significant constitutional violations and poor investigatory tactics in Mr. Moore’s case. 

“The Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office had a responsibility to use all the tools at their disposal to investigate this case. Despite having access to basic investigatory tools that would have allowed them to identify a credible alternate suspect who closely fit the description offered by witnesses, they failed to do any discernible follow-up investigation and, instead, relied solely on the compromised statement of Mr. Moore’s co-defendant. Based on the lack of evidence, Mr. Moore should not have been charged with this murder.”

The Abolitionist Law Center fought diligently to support Mr. Moore’s legal efforts and bring him home from an unjust sentence and conviction while uplifting his significant impact on the lives of those inside and outside prison walls leading restorative justice and anti-violence efforts. Now that he is home, Mr. Moore looks forward to continuing this powerful work in the community.

“Despite the ever-churning wheels of injustice in the so-called criminal justice system, Mr. Moore challenged his conviction for years without a lawyer and, in the process, inspired countless individuals with his drive, his humility, and his intellect. We are happy that this day has come, but we remain sober about the thousands of people like him who remain in cages, burdened by a system that would rather see them buried alive than free. We will continue to fight,” said Nia Holston.

More about John “Yahya” Moore

Friends and family of ALC client John ‘Yahya’ Moore launch official supporter campaign

PA Supreme Court Petition Challenges Mandatory Life Without Parole for 18-Year-Old Juveniles

Charmaine Pfender petitions PA Supreme Court, claiming that the mandatory life without parole sentence imposed on her in 1985 is unconstitutional.

Charmaine and her mother Donna.

June 6, 2017: A petition filed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on June 2nd is requesting that the Commonwealth’s highest court apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent holdings striking down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles to the case of a woman who was 18 years and 6 months old at the time of the homicide leading to her conviction.

Read Petition to PA Supreme Court HERE.

In 2012, Miller v. Alabama struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide offenses. The Court’s holding was based on a recognition that “youth is more than a chronological fact”. Youth is marked by developmental characteristics of “immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness, and recklessness,” and is a “condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage.”

Thus, the Court held that Mandatory life without parole “poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment” because it “mak[es] youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to the imposition of that harshest prison prison sentence[.]” Life without parole sentences pose a heightened risk of excessive punishment when imposed on youthful offenders because “[i]mprisoning an offender until he dies alters the remainder of his life ‘by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.’”. A life without parole sentence “imposed on a teenager, as compared with an older person, is therefore “the same . . . in name only’”

Charmaine Pfender, now a 51-year-old woman who has spent nearly 33 years in prison, was convicted in 1985 for the homicide of a man whom she has always maintained was trying to rape her. Ms. Pfender testified at trial that she reached for a gun under the front seat of the car she was parked in when Turkish student Engin Aydin attempted to force himself on her while holding a knife. After firing a warning shot and attempting to run away, she shot Aydin twice as he continued pursuing her outside of the parked vehicle.

Although her co-defendant also testified that Charmaine was in the back seat of the car with Aydin until she fled and the shooting occurred, Aydin’s friend testified that the two women attempted to tie them up for no reason and that Charmaine shot Aydin when he resisted. Charmaine has always disputed the prosecution’s version of events as a lie designed to cover up the assault against her.


Diminished culpability

In addition to her youth, Charmaine experienced extreme childhood physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, factors the U.S. Supreme Court held are relevant for determining whether a lesser sentence than life without parole should be imposed. Between ages 6-14 Charmaine was subjected to repeated abuse at the hands of her father, including vicious beatings and sexual violence.  Despite the severe trauma she endured, Charmaine has an exemplary record, devoting herself to personal growth and service during her time in prison.

As an 18-year-old who had previously been adjudicated a dependent of the Commonwealth and placed in a ward home at age 13, Ms. Pfender was still considered a child at the time of her offense under Pennsylvania law that recognizes adjudicated dependents as juveniles until they reach age 21.

The U.S. Supreme Court has cited to science on brain development in its recent cases on life without parole sentences imposed on juveniles that recognize how the areas of the brain involved in impulse control and risk evaluation continue developing through late adolescence and into early adulthood at age 22. And the cover of every issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence, the flagship journal of the Society for Research on Adolescence, proclaims that adolescence is defined as ‘the second decade of life.’

Charmaine’s case sheds light on a large and looming problem in Pennsylvania’s prisons.  More than 5,400, or 10.3%, of those in the PADOC are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), also referred to as Death By Incarceration (DBI). The increase in the LWOP/DBI population over the past 30 years has been a major contributor to the mass incarceration in Pennsylvania and across the country, as well as the rising costs of incarceration associated with an aging and elderly prison population. According to the Sentencing Project, Pennsylvania has the largest proportion of its prison population serving LWOP/DBI. Human Rights Watch identified Pennsylvania as having the second highest proportion of its prison population classified as elderly. And Pennsylvania has been the national and world leader in sentencing juveniles to life without parole, a practice now prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in ongoing re-sentencing proceedings for approximately 500 people.

Research and recidivism rates have consistently shown that aging and elderly prisoners pose a drastically diminished risk to public safety. Charmaine’s case is illustrative of that fact.

Since her incarceration over 32 years ago, Charmaine life in prison been marked by a complete absence of any violence, an exemplary disciplinary record, and an impressive list of achievements and record of service. She has participated in and completed several programs aimed at violence prevention, assisting survivors of sexual abuse, and utilizing restorative justice practices. Ms. Pfender has worked at numerous jobs during her incarceration, including many pertaining to her skills in carpentry and building and construction trades, skills that she obtained while in prison. Currently, she works with the Canine Partners for Life program as a dog handler for a Lion’s Club program that trains service dogs; she works as a Braille transcriber for the Lion’s Club; Create for Kids community work program; and she is the chairperson of special events committee in the progressive housing unit she lives on, which is an honors unit for inmates with exceptional disciplinary records. Ms. Pfender’s maturation into a community-oriented adult with an impressive record of service, educational and vocational achievement is also reflected in the fact that she has never engaged in an act of violence while in prison and maintained an exemplary disciplinary record over the course of 32 years.

The 18-year-old who made a fateful decision to accompany her friend for what she presumed would be a typical date has transformed her life. Charmaine is a living testament to the rectitude of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition that mandatory life without parole is an inappropriate and disproportionate punishment for teenagers, in part, due to their possessing less fixed characters and therefore being more amenable to rehabilitation. As anticipated by Miller and Montgomery, the continued incarceration of Charmaine Pfender serves no penological purpose and should come to an end.


Contact: Bret Grote


Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson delivers over 1,000 petition signatures demanding dismissal


PictureLorenzo’s mother; daughter; Bret Grote; wife, Tazza

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:

Dear Supporters,
First and foremost, I hope that everyone and their family holiday and New Year goes accordingly.  I also would like to thank everyone who has signed my Freedom Petition. I encourage everybody to get others to sign and get involved. With the right support and public awareness, my Injustice can come to an end. As long as everyone remains silent about situations like mine, they will continue to take place. A second is too long to be in prison when you are Innocent, so eighteen years…                  “The Pain Within”
Lorenzo Johnson
“Free The Innocent”

Sign the Freedom Petition
Contribute to Help Lorenzo’s Family Fight for His Freedom

Free Speech and Historical Truth in the Case of the Lucasville 5-plus: Journalists and prisoners file lawsuit against censorship in Ohio prisons


Journalists, a professor, and a group of prisoners brought a civil rights lawsuit against Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) officials on Monday, December 9, asserting that prison officials violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in restricting media access to prisoners convicted of crimes related to the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising in order to stifle public discussion.

“The First Amendment guarantees to all people the right of free speech; this right cannot be extinguished at prison walls,” said Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Prisoners have a right to speak.  The public has the right to know.   Suppressing the freedom of speech of prisoners has only one purpose: to keep the truth from being reported.”

The complaint states three causes of action:

1)    Prison officials are denying media requests based on the anticipated content of the interviews in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment;

2)    Prison officials do not have a rational basis for denying media interviews with prisoners convicted of crimes stemming from the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment;

3)    The restrictions on media and public access to information are unreasonable restrictions on speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment.

The media plaintiffs are Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Christopher Hedges, James Ridgeway of Solitary Watch, and Derrick Jones, a theater and film instructor at Bowling Green State University. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is representing the plaintiffs.

All five prisoner-plaintiffs were framed for homicides that occurred during the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising. The uprising lasted 11 days. Nine prisoners and one prison guard were killed during the uprising.

Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Keith Lamar (aka Bomani Shakur), Jason Robb, and George Skatzes are four of the prisoner-plaintiffs who are part of a group collectively referred to as the Lucasville 5-plus. These men were framed and sentenced to death for homicides that occurred during the 1993 Lucasville uprising, and have been held in solitary confinement for the last 20 years, fighting Ohio’s ongoing efforts to execute them. The “plus” refers to the numerous other prisoners framed up in the aftermath of the uprising who received sentences other than death.

A fifth prisoner-plaintiff, Gregory Curry, is serving a life sentence after being convicted for a homicide occurring during the riot in a trial fraught with perjured testimony, suppressed evidence, and prosecutorial misconduct.

As the state persists in its efforts to execute the Lucasville 5, the fight over historical truth continues as well, with lives hanging in the balance. Access to media in this context involves more than the protection of an abstract right, but instead implicates the most fundamental questions about the humanity of people in prison and the tyranny of the state.

The lawsuit claims “Defendants and their predecessors have for twenty years denied all face-to-face media access to prisoners convicted of crimes committed during the April 1993 uprising[.]” In addition to denying requests by Hanrahan, Ridgeway, Jones, and Hedges for interviews with prisoners convicted of crimes related to the uprising, reporters from the Columbus Dispatch, the San Francisco Bay View, and the Associated Press in Columbus have been denied access to those prisoners as well.

In contrast, prisoners convicted of crimes that are unrelated to the 1993 uprising have been permitted to speak with journalists and media workers from WTVG 13 (ABC Toledo), The New York Times, Fox 25 News in Lima, Ohio, French national TV channel France 2, the Edinburgh Evening News, BBC News, Channel 35 in Lima, Ohio, Towers Productions in Chicago, News of the World of Glasgow, Sunday Post of Glasgow, The Times of London, Cicada Films, and WJW-TV in Cleveland, Ohio.

The lawsuit is the latest effort by supporters of the Lucasville 5-plus to challenge the state of Ohio’s efforts to control the factual narrative and the political meaning of the Lucasville uprising. Staughton Lynd, a lifelong political activist, author of several books (including Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising), and attorney has stated, “the truth about these events remains untold in the courts as well as in the media.”

ALC will continue to follow this case and support efforts for the Lucasville 5-plus.


To: Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane
Office of the Attorney General, 16th Floor
Strawberry Square
Harrisburg, PA 17120

Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson is an innocent man. But he has spent most of the past 18 years serving a sentence of life without parole. For several months after the 1995 murder of Tarajay Williams, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania drug dealer, police detectives threatened Johnson with 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 and began his non-ceasing fight to prove his own innocence.In fact Johnson was in New York City when the murder took place. His trial was a travesty of justice. The police and prosecution kept evidence of his innocence secret and coerced witnesses into lying. There was no ballistics evidence against him. The main prosecution witness was a confirmed crack addict. No witness testified linking Lorenzo directly to the murder.

Lorenzo Johnson won his freedom in an October 2011 federal court of appeals decision stating his conviction was based on insufficient evidence—a judicial acquittal. A federal judge then released Johnson on bond and he rejoined his family, worked in construction and spoke out on behalf of other falsely convicted innocent people.

Just four months later, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and reinstated his murder conviction, arguing U.S. Constitutional protections could not be used to overturn a state jury conviction on grounds of insufficient evidence. Johnson voluntarily returned to prison to fight for justice and legal vindication of his innocence.

In August 2013 a new post-conviction state appeal was filed. New evidence is further proof of Lorenzo Johnson’s innocence and that his conviction was a frame-up. The main prosecution witness has now admitted she lied at the trial. Other witnesses admit they were coerced into lying or staying silent, threatened by detectives with being falsely charged with crimes or promised leniency. There is new evidence pointing to the actual murderers. There is no evidence to support Lorenzo Johnson’s conviction.

Eighteen years in prison for an innocent man is 18 years too many. The Pennsylvania Attorney General should dismiss Lorenzo Johnson’s charges. Lorenzo Johnson should be immediately freed from prison!

Dated:_____________      Name: _______________________________
Address: _______________________________

This Petition to Free Lorenzo Johnson is distributed by Lorenzo Johnson’s family. Contact them at
Demand: Free Lorenzo Johnson, Now!
Call or write: Kathleen G. Kane, Attorney General
Office of the Attorney General, 16th Floor
Strawberry Square
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Phone: 717-787-3391
Fax: 717-787-5211

Sign the petition by filling in the form here and ask family and friends to sign also by printing out a PDF of the file and mail to: Lorenzo Johnson, PO Box 1008, Yonkers, NY 10702.

Lorenzo Johnson’s Family encourages everyone outraged by this injustice to write or call the PA Attorney General and Demand: Free Lorenzo Johnson, Now!