One of the most cynical adages in criminal justice holds that prisons are full of innocent people – according to the inmates, that is.
In fact, innocent people do sometimes end up in prison. And, sometimes, the innocent are exonerated.
In Georgia alone over the past quarter-century, 28 people have been cleared after serving time in prison, some for decades, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The registry – a joint project of the University of Michigan, Michigan State and the University of California Irvine – contains details on more than 1,900 people freed from U.S. prisons after proving their innocence. Mistaken eyewitness accounts or false testimony helped convict some. Others gave coerced confessions. Many went to prison before exculpatory DNA evidence was discovered or analyzed.
A lawsuit stemming from one of the Georgia cases is moving toward trial in the U.S. District Court in Macon.
The lawsuit tells a particularly harrowing story of a man wrongly convicted and subjected to harsh treatment in prison – and who fought for 29 years to clear his name.
Timothy Johnson was arrested in Houston County in September 1984 on charges that he shot 24-year-old Taressa Stanley to death during a convenience store robbery. He pleaded guilty and, just three months after the crime, was sentenced to life in prison. He was 22 years old.
One day in 1997, according to the lawsuit Johnson filed last year, he failed to stand during an inspection by the warden at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. A hearing officer overseeing inmate discipline ordered Johnson into solitary confinement – where he stayed for the next nine years.
Guards let Johnson leave his cell only to shower and, very occasionally, to walk into the prison yard. He couldn’t go to the prison library, couldn’t make telephone calls, couldn’t talk with other inmates.
Worse, a group of corrections officers – inmates called them the “Goon Squad” – regularly came to Johnson’s cell to deliver beatings. Over time, Johnson’s lawsuit alleges, these officers broke his right foot, both knees, a toe and a finger. He received no medical treatment for the injuries.
Mental health treatment came only from a psychologist who, about once a month, walked past Johnson’s cell and asked, “How are you doing?”
While in solitary, however, Johnson began drafting handwritten appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court. Neither his lawyer nor the judge, he said, told him that pleading guilty took away his right to appeal or that he had a right to confront the prosecution’s witnesses. He also claimed three witnesses could confirm his alibi – that, at the time of the killing, he was in a Warner Robins “shot house,” an illicit bar and gambling venue.
The court rejected Johnson’s first appeal. But in 2006, the justices threw out his conviction and ordered a new trial. Corrections officers returned him to the Houston County Jail.
There, he waited for his second trial. For 7 ½ years, he waited. Much of that time, for reasons that remain unclear, he was held in solitary confinement.
Finally, in December 2013, one week before the 29th anniversary of his guilty plea, Johnson returned to court. A jury took one hour to acquit him. He was, at age 51, a free man.
His lawsuit alleges law enforcement officers coerced his confession in 1984 by dangling him off a bridge until he agreed to plead guilty. He also says authorities told him the plea was the only way he could avoid a death sentence.
A federal judge recently dismissed Johnson’s claims against some defendants, including state prison officers, because a statute of limitations expired before he filed the lawsuit. The case continues against law enforcement officers and jailers from Houston County and Warner Robins. Depositions and other proceedings will begin soon.
However the lawsuit turns out, Johnson’s experience illustrates a troubling side effect of a wrongful conviction: Whoever killed Taressa Stanley got away with it. The police never charged any other suspect with her murder.