THE BLOG

Innocent Bystanders: How Inept Attorneys Enable Wrongful Convictions

06/02/2015 06:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Most innocent prisoners are indigent. If you are unable to afford an attorney, the state will provide you with a public defender. Most public defenders are underpaid, carry huge caseloads, lack resources, and have little to no time to prepare a solid defense. Many states do not provide funds for court-appointed attorneys to hire expert witnesses that might be needed.

Many of these attorneys are fresh out of law school and ill-versed in criminal law, which often leads to a halfhearted defense. If this happens, an innocent prisoner's wrongful conviction is almost guaranteed. In the case of some innocent prisoners, if their initial attorney had done standard investigations at the beginning of their case, they could have been exonerated quickly, rather than waiting for 15 to 30 years in prison. Some inexperienced attorneys tend to ignore blatant signs of prosecutorial misconduct -- which comes in many forms.

In my own case, on a first-degree murder charge, I was appointed a public defender one year out of law school, with no experience working a murder case. There was next to no investigation of my innocence claims. I went to trial with a partial case discovery -- missing over a hundred pages of crucial documents that should have been shared with me and my lawyer. My attorney never even had a copy of the chief witness statement, and relied on a police summary. But not once did my trial attorney bring this to the attention of the court. Nineteen years later, some of the still-missing pages of my case discovery were turned over to my current attorney.

These missing pages show that the prosecution knew of my innocence for over 18 years and let perjured testimony go without correction from day one. A huge amount of impeachment evidence is included in these pages. Instead of the prosecution doing what's right by freeing me, or immediately consenting to a new trial for me, my case prosecutor is now fighting me, saying that I should have known about this evidence due to the fact he had an open-file policy with my trial attorney. In my pending appeal, I have a signed statement from my trial attorney stating that she never saw the missing pages of my case discovery until they were presented to her by my current attorney.

It's almost 20 years later now. This could have all been avoided and addressed, if only I'd been appointed an experienced trial attorney. I'm not saying that all public defenders and court-appointed attorneys cause wrongful convictions -- that would be far from the truth. I know some public defenders and court-appointed attorneys who are the very best in their field. But my point is this: no attorney who is just a year out of law school should be representing someone when their life is at stake. Everyone should be entitled to effective counsel. My innocence could have been proven from day one if I'd had effective counsel at trial. Now I'm not only fighting against the prosecutorial misconduct that occurred in my case. but also against the fact that I had an inept attorney at trial who allowed my wrongful conviction.

To help curb wrongful convictions (of which there are as many as 10,000 per year in the U.S.), it's imperative to have effective assistance of counsel. If not, the record numbers of innocent prisoners will continue to climb. One thing that we innocent prisoners can never get back is the lost time for the years that we and our families, friends, supporters, have suffered. I'm one of many who are suffering from this injustice. And there are more of us every day. How long is this practice of convicting innocent people going to continue?

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.