Lawyer Johnson is one of the unfortunate people to have been wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In fact, he was the last person in the state of Massachusetts to be sentenced to die before the state changed its death penalty law. Growing up in Roxbury, MA. Johnson was not a person who actively looked for trouble but at the same time he often ran with the wrong crowd and enjoyed looking the part of a troublemaker. Although he was arrested for robbery before he turned eighteen, the charges were dropped against him as there was no evidence he had any knowledge of his friends’ intention to commit the crime. His experience with nearly going to jail motivated him to leave home and move to Pensacola, Florida in 1971.
He might have never been in the position he was had he not had an accident that resulted in him suffering a broken leg. While working and doing very well as a delivery driver in Florida where he had moved, another driver hit him and caused his injury. Being bored with sitting around doing nothing, he decided to visit home for a couple of weeks in December of 1971. After a couple of weeks back in Roxbury, Johnson went out with friends to the Sugar Shack nightclub where he was approached and by three plain-clothed police officers. He was arrested and charged with the murder of a white man named James Christian in the Mission Hill Housing Project where Johnson once lived. Being scared and not being sure if these plain-clothed gentlemen were actually police officers, Johnson gave them a fake name. Two people came forth telling police they had witnessed the murder. The first one was a ten year-old girl named Dawnielle Montiero who pinned the murder on an eighteen year-old man named Kenneth Myers.
The other witness to the crime was Myers himself who said he saw Lawyer Johnson commit the crime. Johnson admitted to knowing Myers but stated they were not friends and had no idea why he would try to pin the murder on him. Although the young girl’s testimony was compelling, police felt that she was too young to believe. Instead, the police believed Myers and a jury that dismissed all black and women jurors during voir dire convicted Johnson of first-degree murder on June 1, 1972. He was then sentenced to die via electrocution. Although maintaining his innocence and having lawyers who successfully argued for a new trial in 1974, the second time around took the same course as the first one. During his second trial, Massachusetts abolished the death penalty so Johnson came off of death row but remained in jail after his second conviction.
Lawyer Johnson remained in prison until he caught a break in 1981. On February 13th of that year, the once little girl and now twenty-year-old Montiero decided she could no longer keep the secret she kept within her for so many years. In her sworn deposition she described how Myers had committed the crime in detail. “Kenny (Myers) looked at me. I noticed that he had a gun on his hand. He pointed the gun at me but did not say anything. At this time, he was three or four feet away from me. Kenny Myers then turned around and said something to the other man. Then he raised the gun and shot the man in the head” (Greene/Globe Staff). Over objections from the prosecutor Thomas Mundy, Appeals Court Judge Eileen P. Griffin declared the testimony of Montiero to be more convincing than that of Myers. In fact, Myers admitted that he had lied about Johnson’s role in the murder from the beginning. On October 19th, 1982 Lawyer Johnson was released from Walpole prison. In his own words he said of his release, “And that was it. They literally cut me loose and never looked back to see if I was OK. I wasn’t OK. I’m still not” (Greene/Globe Staff).
Being released from prison was not the end of the ordeal for Lawyer Johnson. He left prison addicted to drugs that he had never even tried prior to being incarcerated. “They think ‘cause you’re out, things automatically get brighter,” he says. “I came out of prison an addict. I didn’t use drugs before that….But inside, the older guys were telling me, ‘Son, they going to kill you anyway, so you may as well take the edge off’” (Greene/Globe Staff). He became a loner and often thought of ways of returning to prison. “I wanted to go back to prison,” he said. “It’s crazy, but it’s something about being closed in like that. It’s terrifying, but you feel secure, too, in a way.” (Greene/Globe Staff). He also claims that he has not had a personal relationship with a woman since he went to prison because he is too messed up and a woman did not deserve that.
Though he was released from prison and the charges were dropped, what bothers Lawyer Johnson the most is he was never fully exonerated for the crime. “The state withdrew their case against me, and that’s not the same as being found not guilty by peers or by a judge. That’s always bothered me” (Greene/Globe Staff). Instead of wanting sympathy and feeling sorry for himself, he is trying to make positive changes in the system so that no one else must go through the same things he did. This man served time for over a decade for a crime he did not commit. His experience in prison all but ruined him for society. After being released he has worked tirelessly in seeking additional help for wrongfully convicted and released inmates in the form of drug treatment, psychological counseling and free job training. The $500,000 settlement he did receive from the government is nothing compared to what they took from him.
Something must be done to make sure no other people are wrongly convicted and placed in jail or worse, on death row. If this cannot be done then the phrase, “innocent until proven guilty” is just a bunch of words with no real meaning at all.
Scholarship essay by Marcus Addison Valverde.