The following post by Lorenzo Johnson was published by the Huffington Post on August 15, 2016.
At the age of 22, I was caught up in the wave of mass incarceration and wrongfully convicted of murder. This took place in a state I wasn’t from or and where I had no family.
I had dropped out of school at an early age, so when I entered the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, my reading and writing level were so low that I was to attend Adult Basic Education classes.
I remember my first time going to the prison law library. I informed the clerk who was assisting prisoners that I was innocent and needed help. He gave me a look like he had heard my story a hundred times before, and then he gave me a book entitled Pennsylvania Criminal Rules and Procedures. This book was at least 500 pages. I took this book and sat down at the table with it. I couldn’t even read it, let alone understand it. I sat at this table sad, mad, and very embarrassed.
I went on to study for my GED. I eventually passed the test. I couldn’t afford the college courses that were available, so a friend let me study his books once his semester was over. Once I got the money I enrolled. A fire was lit within me. I began to realize how I had been taken advantage of due to being illiterate. I returned to the prison law library to study. Not only was I studying the law, I began studying my case file—at least, the incomplete case file I was given. I literally had gotten sick uncovering how my constitutional rights were not only violated but disregarded as if I wasn’t a human being.
By this time, the same court-appointed attorney who represented me at my trial was also representing for my direct appeal. Unfortunately, once my direct appeal was denied, I no longer had a lawyer. I could not afford to hire my own attorney. I’ll never forget sitting in the prison cell with nowhere else to turn. I looked in the mirror and told myself, “The time is now. You can do it.”
I had a one year time frame to file my Post Conviction Relief Act (P.C.R.A.) Petition. If I did not make this deadline, I would forfeit my right to argue my innocence. By this time, I was enrolled in a business education class that also taught typing. At this point, because I had no lawyer, I was officially representing myself. Ten months later, I filed my P.C.R.A. Petition to the courts pro se—by myself. I was granted an evidentiary hearing and was appointed an attorney to represent me.
This attorney abandoned me after my appeals were denied and never even contacted me when my last appeal was denied—I only found out about it months later. This almost caused me to lose my appeal rights. Once again I began representing myself. I had come to the conclusion that no one would fight for my innocence harder than me. That being said, as I continued my fight and I also reached out to hundreds of Innocence Projects and attorneys for help.
My appeals were running out. I was down to my last round of federal appeals. I had to deal with the reality that—if I were to lose—I would die in prison an innocent man.
I went on to file my federal habeas corpus appeal pro se. I gave it all I had. I had to deal with the fact that the prosecution withheld evidence of my innocence and never turned it over to me or any of my previous attorneys.
A well respected attorney came to my aid by the name of Michael Wiseman. He believed in me and my innocence. Mr. Wiseman and his team accepted my case on a pro bono basis. He amended my appeal and adopted the issues I raised pro se.
After sixteen and a half years in prison for a crime I was innocent of, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals vacated my sentence on the grounds of insufficient evidence—which is equivalent to a “not guilty” verdict—and ordered my immediate release, barring a retrial. I was released and reunited with my family.
But my experience of justice and happiness was short-lived and lasted a mere 148 days. The prosecutor in my case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reinstated my conviction in a single day and denied my attorneys the right to file briefs or make oral arguments. I had to return to prison just months after being exonerated.
After eighteen and a half years, my legal team finally got their hands on some of the missing pages of my case discovery that the prosecutors had never turned over. After all this time, we found out not only that the prosecution knew I was innocent from day one, but that they let false testimony go uncorrected from the start of my court proceedings all the way up to the Supreme Court.
I’m now heading back to court twenty years later. Hopefully, it will be once and for all. If not—I will NEVER stop fighting to prove my innocence. I’m one of MANY innocent prisoners.
Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence until 2012, when 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 is continuing to fight for his freedom. Though he does not have internet access himself, you can email his campaign, make a donation, or sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.