PHILADELPHIA (AP) – A prison inmate who was released from a life sentence only to be sent back behind bars for a murder he says he didn’t commit is making a new bid for freedom.
Lorenzo Johnson’s supporters went to the state Capitol on Wednesday to urge the attorney general to dismiss the case against him.
Johnson, who had been locked up for 16 years, left prison last year after a U.S. appeals court threw out his conviction. His freedom didn’t last long. Five months later, he became the rare lifer to leave prison and then have the decision reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court, without hearing arguments, overturned the appeals court ruling in May.
Johnson’s supporters include Jeffrey Deskovic, who himself spent 16 years in prison before being cleared by DNA of a New York rape and murder. He drove Johnson back to prison from Yonkers, N.Y., where Johnson had married and found work.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do since being released, to turn somebody back to prison,” Deskovic said Wednesday. “It was a very emotional and difficult journey on the way there.”
Several inmate advocacy groups, including a foundation that Deskovic started with $1.5 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction, are rallying behind Johnson’s innocence claims. Deskovic said he knows of only two other people sent back to prison after winning release.
Johnson’s conviction stems from the shooting death of Taraja Williams outside a Harrisburg bar in December 1995. Johnson, who prosecutors say left the bar with the gunman and the victim, was charged as an accomplice.
One trial witness testified that Johnson and his co-defendant had been arguing with the victim over money that day. Prosecutors say that provides enough motive for jurors to have found intent when they convicted the pair of first-degree murder in 1996.
However, a 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals panel disagreed in a 2-1 ruling last year, finding the evidence of any intent on Johnson’s part lacking.
Attorney Michael Wiseman, who took the case as head of the capital appeals unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia and now works on it pro bono in his private practice, said: “It’s not a very usual finding for any judge to find the evidence insufficient.”
Wiseman is preparing another round of appeals, based on new information he said shows evidence was withheld before trial and puts Johnson in New York the night of the crime.
The state attorney general’s office, which pursued the appeal to the Supreme Court, accepted the petitions dropped off Wednesday by Johnson’s supporters. Staff lawyers plan to meet with Johnson’s lawyers in January about their new pleadings, a spokesman said.
“Obviously, the Supreme Court accepted our argument,” spokesman Joe Peters said. “However, Attorney General (Kathleen) Kane is always interested, in every case, in justice. If there is new evidence or information, we are interested in that.”
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