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Conviction by Any Means Necessary: How Prosecutors Stole 19 Years of My Life

04/14/2015 11:16 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

For sixteen and a half years, I'd been serving a life-without-parole sentence for a crime I never committed. But October 5, 2011 marked a breaking point in my torture. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals vacated my conviction on the grounds of insufficient evidence, which is the same as a "not guilty" verdict barring a retrial. After repeated attempts by prosecuting Senior Deputy Attorney General William Stoycos to keep me in prison while his office filed their final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, I was granted bail and finally freed on January 18, 2012.

At last I was a free man, after a sixteen-and-a-half-year nightmare. I quickly reestablished myself with my family in New York. A childhood friend helped me obtain a construction job. I began to speak at colleges about wrongful convictions, I also spoke to youth at local community centers. The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice played an integral part in my reentry and stayed in constant contact with me. I met and fell in love with my wife. Life was once again good for me.

My happiness came to a crashing end on May 29, 2012, when I received a devastating call from my attorney, Michael Wiseman, while I was at work. Mr. Wiseman was crying on the phone, but it didn't take me long to make out what he was saying: "The US. Supreme Court reinstated your conviction, and did not allow us briefing or oral arguments, all in one day, with a per curiam decision." I went numb. My biggest fear was back to haunt me. I broke the news to my family and friends while I was at The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation. There wasn't a dry eye in the room.

I had to make the hardest decision of my life. After meetings with my family, legal team and supporters, I chose to turn myself in and fight to prove my innocence once and for all. Many thoughts ran through my head, since I knew the prosecution had never played fair in any of the prior proceedings.

On June 14, 2012, Jeffrey Deskovic and I drove from New York back to prison in Pennsylvania. It hardest thing I ever had to do. I was living every exonerated prisoner's worst nightmare.

We kept fighting, however. My lead attorney sent investigators to reexamine my case and leave no stone unturned. Not only did we uncover a mountain of wrongdoing, hidden evidence, and prosecutorial misconduct, we collected over twenty witness statements, including a statement from one of the investigating detectives. Meanwhile, my attorneys set out to interview the chief witness against me, Carla Brown. Ms. Brown didn't want to talk, but she made a verbal statement, yelling: "I was never at the bar that night, you need to get your facts right!" This whole case hinged on her testimony about witnessing an argument between my codefendant and the deceased in a bar. But she says wasn't even there.

At the same time, my supporters from the Jeffry Deskovic Foundation, the Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson, and other groups kept my case alive in the media, participated in rallies, and spoke at different events concerning the injustice I was suffering.

From the new evidence we'd uncovered, we learned that the lead detective, Kevin Duffin, was a god-brother of the motive witness, but no one knew this at trial. We now knew this through signed affidavits from his brother and the witness's brother. Numerous witnesses signed statements concerning how they were threatened by Detective Duffin not to come forth and help me.

In 2013, my attorneys met with representatives of Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office to show our findings. We were promised a good faith investigation by Kane.

In exchange for multiple continuances to prolong the investigation, Senior Deputy Attorney General Stoycos traded my attorney missing pages from the police reports that we'd never received in the original case discovery. Those eight missing pages, withheld for nineteen years, shocked me. I found out that Brown, the chief witness, had initially been labeled a suspect herself in this murder. What's more, we learned that there were positive results for fingerprints found on the part of shotgun they recovered--but not mine. I had been told there were no fingerprints, prior to trial. These missing pages also stated that there were no witnesses to this killing. None of these points were brought before the jury.

Once again, on September 12, 2014, Stoycos traded more missing pages of my case discovery in exchange for more time for their investigation. 122 pages of documents were turned over. For over nineteen years, I was told that Brown never made a written statement. But here it was--not only did Brown make a statement to police, but her statement contradicts her testimony in all the proceedings leading to my trial and during the trial itself.

On Christmas Eve, after 18 months of delay tactics, Stoycos finally filed his reply to my innocence and police and prosecution misconduct claims. He didn't respond to our overwhelming evidence. He plainly hid behind procedural defaults stating my appeal was filed too late. He accused me of failing to find this evidence sooner -- evidence that his own office had hidden from me. After everything that has been done to me for over 19 years, Stoycos said in his reply that I "defamed" a career cop and prosecutor!

On March 6, 2015, my attorney filed our reply to the Attorney General's denial of any wrongdoing. Our reply is accompanied by signed affidavits from my previous attorneys, both of whom stated they never were furnished with Carla Brown's, statement, which they would have used to impeach her contradicting preliminary hearing and trial testimony. My attorneys also had no knowledge of the family relationship that Lead Detective Duffin shared with motive witness Victoria Doubs, evidence they both said would of been used to impeach Ms. Doubs, since in her original statement she said, truthfully, that she was in New York with me at the time of this murder. As Mr. Wiseman wrote in this latest filing:

While the Commonwealth says it would never countenance keeping an innocent man imprisoned, it has interposed every procedural bar even arguably available to it in an attempt to defeat the above claims. It is certainly the Commonwealth's right to raise these procedural defenses, however, the Commonwealth's reliance on procedural bars is not consistent with its claim that it seeks the truth. [...]

The Commonwealth's reliance on the PCRA time bar, the serial petition bar, and other procedural arguments interposed in the Commonwealth's Response, is particularly galling, inasmuch as it blames Petitioner for his tardiness in presenting claims based on evidence that it has suppressed for two decades. If the Commonwealth's professed desire to get to the truth is truly paramount, it would join Petitioner in his quest to see that these claims receive proper evidentiary development before this Court. Alas, it does not.

I've been in prison for almost 20 years for a crime I didn't commit. A crime for which I've already been exonerated once. But I won't stop fighting until this nightmare is over.

Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence, from 1995 to 2012, when the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled there was legally insufficient evidence for his conviction. He remained free for 4 months, after which the US Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the conviction and ordered Lorenzo back to prison to resume the sentence. With the help of Michael Wiseman, Esq., The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, The Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson, and others, he is continuing to fight for his freedom. Sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.