A Wyoming man who was convicted by a jury in 1989 for 1st-degree sexual assault and aggravated robbery was exonerated of those crimes in July of 2013. Andrew Johnson who was 63 years old at the time of his release from prison had served almost 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. His reason for the release was based upon newly discovered DNA evidence- a case of first impression in Wyoming jurisprudence at the time.
Johnson had met a woman through an acquaintance of his who was purportedly once the woman’s fiancé. During the early morning hours of June 10th, 1989, Johnson and the woman went bar-hopping in Cheyenne after first going to the woman’s apartment to retrieve her identification which was needed to get into the various bars. The woman ended up getting sick from too much consumption and drove home leaving the defendant at a bar. Later, neighbors of the woman called police when they heard her screaming; eventually, she told police that she had hung out with the defendant at bars and after she left him, he broke into her apartment and raped her. Investigators found the defendant’s identification and other personal items of his at the apartment and arrested him. At some point, she mentioned that the defendant was the only person that she had sexual intercourse within the past two weeks. Post-conviction lawyers presented DNA evidence which eliminated Johnson’s sperm as the source. The court ordered a new trial. Confronted with this evidence, the prosecutor reluctantly decided not to seek a retrial and Johnson was a free man.
COMMENT: In general, eyewitness identification, overzealous police and prosecutor misconduct, and ineffective defense counsel account for the vast majority of innocent people being convicted (not necessarily referring to the above case). As of 2013, roughly 314 defendants have been exonerated through DNA evidence in the United States. During this period 18 of those people had been sentenced to death. It is entirely unknown how many innocent people were put to death or falsely imprisoned for crimes for which they were convicted but innocent thereof. The vast majority of Americans support the death penalty in one form or another; some running in that circle, believe it is better to convict some innocent people than to let one guilty person go free. Another troubling factor is the on-going “game” police and prosecutors play with defense counsel; prosecutors are obligated to turn over all evidence “they have in their possession” which tends to mitigate the defendant’s guilt. Under some circumstances, it is all too easy for the police not to provide the prosecutors with evidence which is helpful to the defense- therefore, it is not in the prosecutor’s possession. Requirements that the defendant’s statements be recorded and their alleged crime scenes are videoed are helpful, but more protections in this area are needed. Subsequent successful post-conviction civil suits are also helping to deter such misconduct. Various states have passed laws which permit compensation for people falsely imprisoned, but as it goes without saying, it is hard to put a price on the loss of 24 years of life.