PA Prison Report Special – An interview with Lorenzo Johnson
Posted Sunday, February 25, 2013
This time last year, Lorenzo Johnson was living in New York after spending 16 years in Pennsylvania prisons for a crime he did not commit. Johnson thought the nightmare of being sentenced to life without parole – the other death penalty – was behind him. But in a stomach-churning turn of events, he finds himself back in a Pennsylvania prisons, State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy.
In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court summarily reversed the Third Circuit Court of Appeals grant of habeas corpus relief in the case of Lorenzo Johnson, convicted of first degree murder and conspiracy due to his alleged role in the 1995 killing of Taraja Williams in Harrisburg. Unlike most Supreme Court decisions, the reversal of Johnson’s grant of habeas relief was issued without briefing or oral argument.
Sixteen years after his initial conviction, Johnson was granted relief by the Third Circuit in October 2011 based on the claim that the evidence used to convict him was insufficient. He was subsequently released from prison on bond pending the Commonwealth’s appeal to the high court.
Lorenzo Johnson was forced to return to confinement within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) where he will serve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, a sentence that has been described as “the other death penalty” by a coalition of prisoners organizing against life without the possibility of parole.
HRC interviewed Johnson via correspondence as he continues fighting to vindicate his rights and win his release.
HRC: How long have you been incarcerated and what are the facts of the case you are serving time for?
Lorenzo Johnson: I’ve been wrongfully imprisoned for seventeen years on a life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder. A witness stated I was present when a murder took place. In this case there was no eyewitness to the actual murder, and the witness who said I was present [her] original statement to the police was she didn’t know anything, she wasn’t there.
HRC: Can you describe how the appeals process works and what were the decisions in your case? Why did the Third Circuit release you?
Lorenzo Johnson: After my trial, my attorney filed a direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Pa. Superior Court denied this appeal, but one judge (Berle Schiller, who is now an Eastern District Federal Judge) filed a dissenting opinion stating that I was innocent of this crime. My trial attorney then filed an appeal to the Pa. Supreme Court that was denied.
During this time period, I enrolled in school and got my G.E.D., took some college classes. Now that I had an education, I started to teach myself the law with assistance from some old timers. At this time I had no lawyer. I had one year to file a Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition or habeas corpus appeal. If I failed to do so, I would be time barred and wouldn’t ever be able to appeal my case unless some new evidence turned up. It took me nine months to put together a solid PCRA petition. I filed it pro se on December 1, 1999.
The Common Pleas Court appointed Francis Socha to represent me. On March 7, 2001 my trial judge held an evidentiary hearing. In March 2002 the trial judge denied my PCRA petition. Attorney Socha filed an appeal to the Pa. Superior Court. At the same time, a witness in my case contacted attorney Socha and recanted his trial testimony stating the detectives forced him to put me on the scene. So a second PCRA petition was filed and labeled stayed until the outcome of my pending appeal. The Superior Court denied my appeal on July 17, 2003 and denied my reconsideration on September 25, 2003. October 27, 2003 attorney Socha filed an appeal to the Pa. Supreme Court. Shortly after, attorney Socha got lost on me.
It got so bad, I had to go to the discipline board to hear from him. Keep in mind that I only had 90 days to file my federal habeas corpus when the Pa. Supreme Court made their decision. I only had 90 days because I used 9 months out of the one year to file my PCRA petition. The Pa. Supreme Court denied my appeal on April 2, 2004 and attorney Socha never informed me. I sensed something was wrong and in an unusual move contacted the Pa. Middle District federal court. I let the court know I had nothing pending in their court, but I showed them documentation that my attorney was not keeping in touch with me and I wanted to get an extension on filing my habeas corpus.
To my surprise, the Middle District federal court informed me to file my habeas corpus petition within 14 days (Wow!) and every 60 days to contact them and let them know the status of my state appeal. Once again with the help of a friend (Antonio Horne), we stayed up writing and typing for 10 days and submitted my habeas corpus petition timely. After the disciplinary board contacted attorney Socha, attorney Socha contacted me and let me know that the Pa. Supreme Court denied my appeal two months ago and he was off my case. Once again, if I didn’t take the steps I took I would have been time barred.
It took me another year to get my second PCRA petition through the lower courts. At this time I wrote over 400 innocence organizations, lawyers in the east, Midwest, west coast and out of the country seeking help. In 2006 I contacted the Middle District federal court judge John E. Jones III and informed him I was ready to proceed. I requested three times to Judge Jones to appoint counsel to help me but was denied. At this time I reached out to attorney Michael Wiseman. Mr. Wiseman came to my aid and contacted Judge Jones informing him that if he would appoint him, he wouldn’t seek any funds. Judge Jones appointed attorney Wiseman. Attorney Wiseman quickly amended my petition.
In 2007 I had an in camera review hearing in front of Judge Jones. In 2008 Judge Jones denied my federal habeas corpus petition and did not grant me a COA (Certificate of Appealability) to file an appeal to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Attorney Wiseman filed a motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) to alter the judgment to permit a Certificate of Appealability. This motion was granted and I was given permission to appeal only the sufficiency of evidence claim.
On September 30, 2009 my attorney Mr. Wiseman and Amy Donnella orally argued my case in front of Chief Judge McKee, Charages and Nygaard of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated my conviction on October 4, 2011 and remanded my case with instructions that the writ issue. After the Court of Appeals issued its mandate, my attorneys filed in the Middle District Court a motion for issuance of the writ or bail, requesting my release pending completion of the certiorari proceedings. Following an evidentiary hearing on January 12, 2012, at which family members and prison personnel testified on my behalf. District Judge Jones released me on conditions.
HRC: When were you released and what did you do upon release?
Lorenzo Johnson: I was supposed to be released on January 17 but SCI Camp Hill didn’t get my paperwork done in time so I was released on January 18, 2012 from SCI Camp Hill. My attorney Amy Donnella and paralegal Jenna Rosania came to pick me up. We stopped and ate breakfast and headed to the Capital Habeas Unit in Philadelphia where all of the Capital Habeas Unit lawyers were waiting. After we all talked and celebrated, my brother (Tyrone Johnson) and friend (Bashir Garba) arrived from New York to finally take me home after 16 ½ years. When we hit New York we started clothes shopping and soon as I got out of the truck and on the sidewalk in front of the stores, I was surrounded and searched by NYPD (Wow!). I said to myself “Only if they knew my story.” Made my rounds to my family and friends. I immediately started doing speaking engagements on wrongful convictions and speaking to the youth at local community centers. My lead attorney Michael Wiseman and his wife Judith Ritter taught law at Widener University, so I spoke at both of their classes. I started working for San Mateo Construction Company. My life was finally coming back together. I met my wife and I became best friends with a fellow exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic, who I was in touch with while I was in prison.
HRC: Where were you when you heard the Supreme Court had reversed the Third Circuit decision? Can you describe your reaction?
Lorenzo Johnson: I was at work when I got the call from attorney Mr. Wiseman. I couldn’t understand him ‘cause he was literally crying. Then I heard him say “The Supreme Court reinstated your conviction.” I instantly got numb, my worst fear/nightmare was coming back to haunt me. I was at work with my friend Bashir who came and picked me up with my brother when I was released. I can’t explain the raw pain I felt and am still feeling. I pray that no one ever has to endure it.”
HRC: Why did the Supreme Court reverste the Third Circuit decision?
Lorenzo Johnson: I still don’t fully understand why the Supreme Court made the decision they made. What I do know, my legal team was never afforded the opportunity to file a brief or orally argue my case. If they would have been allowed to, the mistakes the Supreme Court made in giving me a charge I was never charged with and using a Brady violation witness to base their decision on would have never happened. [Editor’s note: A “Brady violation” is named after the Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and it refers to evidence that was withheld from a criminal defendant at the time of trial in violation of due process.]
HRC: Where does the case stand now legally?
Lorenzo Johnson: After the U.S. Supreme Court denied my legal team request for re-argument, they remanded my case back to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (the same court that freed me). There’s a couple of different scenarios that can play out that can lead to my release, or they can agree with the Supreme Court and go against their decision that sent me home.
HRC: What should the public know about wrongful convictions?
Lorenzo Johnson: I’m one of MANY wrongful convictions. Whenever someone is wrongfully convicted of a crime, it affects the falsely accused, victims, families, taxpayers, and society as a whole.
HRC: What would you be doing if you were not in prison? What are your plans for life after prison?
Lorenzo Johnson: I constantly strive to be a better person. My family, friends and job is still waiting on me and I will take over where I left off. At the end of the day I’m still a son, father, brother and uncle. I will continue to speak out against wrongful convictions. One second is too long for an innocent person to spend in prison.
“THE PAIN WITHIN”
FREE THE INNOCENCE
LORENZO “CAT” JOHNSON
Write to Cat:
Lorenzo Johnson DF1036
301 Morea Road
Frackville, PA 17932