Terrell Johnson found not guilty on all charges: Only minutes before the close of court on Wednesday, September 12, a jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all three charges in the 18-year-old case of Commonwealth v. Terrell Johnson, causing the defendant and his family and supporters to burst into tears of joy. Terrell had spent more than 17 years in prison after being convicted of the 1994 murder of Verna Robinson. The jury found him not guilty of first degree murder, retaliation against a witness, and criminal conspiracy.
The close of the case brings an end to the relentless efforts of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office to frame Terrell for a crime that he did not commit, using evidence that had been incredible and insufficient since day one.
After the prosecution rested last week in the case of Commonwealth v. Terrell Johnson, the only fact definitively proven was that Verna Robinson was shot twice in the head and murdered in the early morning hours of July 22, 1994. Relying on the testimony of two witnesses with serious credibility problems, prosecutor Russell Broman attempted to portray Terrell as a member of an alleged gang known as the Hazelwood Mob who gunned down Verna to prevent her from testifying against him in a simple assault case.
Terrell’s conviction in 1995 hinged on the testimony of one witness, Evelyn McBryde. When she testified last week she told a story that differed in significant respects from earlier versions, as she now claims she saw Terrell shoot Verna, which she had never testified to before.
Perhaps most harmful to her credibility was the 18-page criminal record dating from the mid-1980s to 2009 that involved repeated instances of criminal activity, including bank fraud, endangerment of children, retail theft, and prostituting her own children. Terrell's attorney brought to the jury’s attention Evelyn’s thirteen aliases from her FBI file, four different social security numbers used, and four dates of birth. McBryde has received favorable treatment from the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office ever since she first came forward as an alleged witness in this case after being arrested committing retail theft with her young children in 1994. At the time, prosecuting attorney Kim Berkley Clark intervened and asked other jurisdictions to drop charges against Evelyn at the time that she was the prosecutor’s witness in Terrell’s first trial.
Several police officers were called to bolster the prosecution’s case. Lt. McQuigan testified that she took down a report of Verna Robinson’s that a man named “Ralph” had assaulted her at the end of April 1994. The prosecutor then blurted out “Ralph” followed by “Rel”, suggesting that the name Ralph was actually the latter half of Terrell’s name. Lt. McQuigan was unable to testify as to how Terrell became a suspect who was eventually charged in the simple assault, agreeing with defense counsel that Verna’s description of a six foot young black male with a mustache was “generic.” Lt. Herrmann then also testified that he was involved in bringing simple assault charges against Terrell, though he could not determine how he became a suspect
The victim’s mother, Barbara Robinson was called to testify as well. In August 2010, after Terrell had twice refused a plea offer that would have allowed him to walk out of prison for time served, Barbara Robinson signed a new statement that contradicted her past statements to police, testimony at three trials, and conversations with journalist Bill Moushey. During a break in her testimony, Barbara Robinson was instructed by a woman attending the trial that she should testify that she was afraid to come forward in the past in order to explain why her story had changed. It is unclear if the woman who coached her was a part of the prosecution team, with the state Office of Victims' Advocate, or had some other role. After this conversation Barbara re-took the stand and alleged, for the first time, that she had been afraid to come forward in the past.
Several of the defense's witnesses refuted every aspect of Evelyn McBryde’s testimony. Dinah Brown told the jury that Evelyn was not in her apartment prior to the shooting as she had claimed. Carol Smith testified that the gate in her front yard was locked, which would have made it impossible for Evelyn to enter through it and hide behind the bushes, which is where she claimed she witnessed the shooting from. Finally, Skinny Robinson testified that Evelyn was at his home at the time of the shooting, trading sexual services for drugs in the basement of his home.
On Monday afternoon, Terrell Johnson took the stand for the first time in 18 years to answer the charge that he murdered Verna Robinson. During the shooting, Terrell had been at a friend’s house where he ended up staying the night. The following morning he found out that Verna had been killed and that the police wanted to question him since he had been implicated in a simple assault charge against her, which he claimed was a case of mistaken identity. Upon learning that police had been looking for him, Terrell turned himself in for questioning. Terrell testified that police reports he had seen indicated that the police had corroborated his alibi. He was not arrested until seven months later, after Evelyn McBryde had implicated him. He also turned himself in when he was charged, thinking that this was a mistake and would be cleared up quickly.
18 years later, a definitive chapter in this saga has closed. Terrell Johnson remains in state custody after the trial pending being “processed” out of the prison he was held at.
This victory represents a resounding testament to the power of faith and family, and it would not have been possible without the steadfast determination of Saundra Cole, Terrell’s wife, who tracked down the new evidence that led to the re-trial, inspired others to help organize press conferences, teach-ins, rallies, and community events, and together with Terrell raised and maintained a caring and supportive family throughout this trying but transformative struggle.
News from the Inside
Prisoner Killed in Solitary at SCI Forest:
A prisoner in the restricted housing unit at SCI
Forest was reportedly killed by his cellmate before morning rounds on August 22. Frederick Kirkland, a 63-year old prisoner, was killed while being celled with another prisoner in the restricted housing unit. The DOC press release
indicates that state police are investigating the death and the superintendent’s office is referring reporters to the district attorney. An obituary
in the Beaver County Times stated that Frederick Kirkland was from Beaver Falls and is survived by family in western Pennsylvania.
The Human Rights Coalition received two reports from inside the prison regarding the incident. One prisoner in the general population at Forest heard about the death on the radio and spoke with guards in general population, who spoke negatively on how the restricted housing unit is run. He noted the problem of prisoners being celled together in solitary who didn’t get along.
A report from another prisoner inside the restricted housing unit, Eric Maple, indicated that the accused man had gone through a number of cellmates over the course of a few months, that he was mentally unstable, and that he performed rituals with milk and coffee that he thought gave him superpowers. This led guards to make fun of him and made other prisoners reluctant to share a cell with him. In a letter to the Forest County Courthouse, Maple indicated the accused prisoner had been written up for refusing to take on new cellmates, and other prisoners had been written up for refusing to cell with him. Maple believed that both Fred Kirkland and the accused prisoner were on suicide watch at the time that they were celled together. The Department of Corrections has in the past celled prisoners together who are in solitary units as an attempted from of social control, for people to keep an eye on each other. In this case, isolated and overcrowded turned deadly .
Retaliation and harassment at SCI-Frackville: George Rahsaan Brooks, a state prisoner at SCI Frackville, reports being harassed, oppressed, and threatened with physical and sexual violence by several DOC employees in retaliation for him filing grievances. According to the report, on May 24, Deputy Lorady ordered the removal of all Brooks' cell contents, including all legal materials. Prison guard Brandon then removed all of Brooks' cell contents, including all legal materials he needs to fight his case, and all books and writings concerning black history, culture, and religion. On that same day, C.O. Hough told Brooks he would “stick your walking cane up your black faggot ass”. Brooks called the DOC sexual harassment hotline and reported the incident. The next day, Hough told Brooks “you’re going to get yours” and called him a snitch. On May 31, Hough entered his cell and removed the remote to his TV, broke the top frame of his typewriter, and broke the antenna off his radio. After Brook’s property was taken, prison guard Long did the inventory over a week later. He refused to allow Brooks to check his property to see what was missing or damaged, and told him if he didn’t sign the inventory property slip, he wouldn’t get any of his property back. Long then broke Brooks' reading glasses.
When Lt. Johnson investigated the hotline call and grievance against Hough, he never asked anything about the sexual harassment in his interview with Brooks. Instead, his report only stated that Brooks' property was broken down to be in compliance with DOC policy, even though Brooks was not present when his property was removed and he was not given any confiscation slips for his property.
Prison guard Brandon issued Brooks a citation for taking a broken ink cartridge to the exercise yard to get help fixing it. He claimed the broken ink cartridge was classified as a “weapon or implement of escape.” Hearing examiner Luquis then sentenced him to 45 days in solitary confinement for the trivial, benign incident. On August 3, guards Schultz and Prior came to Brook’s cell and asked him, “do you want to go with us?” When Brooks asked where they were taking him, Schultz said, “to a lynching party. You are the guest of honor.” On August 5, Schultz called Brooks a “fucking pussy” and a “dick head”. On August 10, guard Suzendale told Brooks he would “stick your cane up your black ass.” On August 12, Suzendale told Sgt. Sargenski, in Brook’s presence, “I’m going to burn that black mother fucker. I want to punch that nigger in the back of his head.”
Brooks is filing a private criminal complaint against the guards involved. He continues to be threatened with physical and sexual violence, racist and homophobic slurs, and harassment.
If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, come to Write On!, to our monthly general meetings (second Wednesday of each month, 6-8pm), or call us at 267-293-9169, email: email@example.com
, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org./
Write On! – Letter writing to prisoners and HRC
work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC
/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 412-654-9070.
You’ve been listening to the Human Rights Coalition’s PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.
Keep up the fight!