After twenty-two years of fighting my wrongful conviction, I’m finally free from a “natural life” sentence. In Pennsylvania, a life sentence is called “the other death penalty.” Why? Your sentence is only considered served when you no longer have air in your lungs...
I have one of the rare cases that got national attention because my conviction was vacated on October 4, 2011 by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds of insufficient evidence, which is equivalent to a “not guilty” verdict and bars retrial. Still, the prosecution fought me tooth and nail until the judge ordered my release on January 12, 2012, pending the prosecution’s last appeal to the US Supreme Court.
I quickly returned to my home state of New York. where I rejoined my family structure after being gone for sixteen and a half years. I began working, speaking at colleges and wrongful conviction events, and I met my wife. But my freedom was short lived. After a mere 148 days, the US Supreme Court reinstated my conviction in a per curiam decision and ordered me back to prison. My defense was not allowed to file briefs or make oral arguments for our position (normal procedures). I returned to prison on June 14, 2012, ready to keep fighting and clear my name once and for all.
A short time after my return to prison, my defense unearthed a treasure trove of new evidence proving my innocence in a grave case of prosecution misconduct. The prosecution in my case knew I was innocent from day one but withheld this information for eighteen and a half years. Instead of finally doing what was right, they accused me of not filing my appeal sooner. In other words, “SO WHAT” if they never turned this evidence over like they were supposed to?
After almost four years of delays and stall tactics, a judge gave me an evidentiary hearing on my claims of prosecution misconduct. I was about to finally have my day in court with overwhelming amount of evidence of my innocence that was supposed to be furnished to my defense prior to trial.
For innocent prisoners, we can have evidence of our innocence and still be denied justice. Why? If your appeal is filed one day late, you’re “time barred” and will automatically lose your claim despite being able to show your innocence. Then there’s the uncertainty as to whether the judge will rule in your favor even though you can prove your innocence.
My confidence has truly been lost in our criminal justice system after experiencing everything from strict guidelines that hurt the innocent to crooked agents of the court. In my situation, my faith has almost been shattered in the criminal justice system. Due to this, and to our fears about what might go wrong next, my defense agreed to a plea agreement to secure my instant release.
After twenty-two years of not just my own suffering, but my family’s as well, I made the bittersweet decision to end their pain and regain my freedom. I entered a plea of “no contest” to lesser charges. No innocent prisoner deserves anything less than a full exoneration. This is my second release from a natural life sentence—that tells you there was something extremely wrong with my conviction.
* * *Lorenzo Johnson spent almost twenty-two years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. Wrongfully convicted of a 1995 murder in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he won release from his life-without-parole sentence in 2012, after the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled there was legally insufficient evidence for his conviction. He remained free for four months, after which the US Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the conviction and ordered him back to prison to resume the sentence. With the support of The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, he continued to fight for his freedom. On July 11, 2017, he was re-sentenced and released from prison. He now lives in his hometown of Yonkers, New York, with his wife, Tazza. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.freelorenzojohnson.org