Lawyers Journal

Wrongly convicted prisoner to share how DNA exonerated him

"With God as my witness, I have been falsely accused of these crimes. I did not commit them. I'm an innocent man."

In 1983 Calvin C. Johnson, Jr. spoke these words to a Georgia judge who later handed down a life sentence for rape and related crimes. Johnson spent 16 years behind bars before he was freed in 1999 after DNA testing conclusively ruled out the possibility of his guilt.

Johnson will share his experiences under a flawed justice system when he appears as keynote speaker of the MBA's Annual Dinner on Friday, March 4 as part of Annual Conference 2005.

'A rude awakening'

Johnson will recall his trial and long journey toward freedom.

In 1983, Johnson was charged with rape and other related crimes in two Georgia counties.

His accuser picked out another man in a police line-up, but later picked out Johnson from a photograph. The victim did not describe her attacker as having facial hair but Johnson had a full beard at the time. Despite alibis and other discrepancies in the victim's account, Johnson was not released and blood and hair samples were taken from his body.

Even though his hair samples did not match those found at the crime scene, his blood sample matched. Johnson has an O-positive blood type, which is found in more than 40 percent of the population.

He received the guilty verdict in Clayton County by an all-white jury in 45 minutes.

At the point in his prison term when Johnson thought that he had exhausted all avenues of appeal, DNA-based forensics began to make headlines. Eventually his case was taken up by the Innocence Project, the nonprofit legal clinic renowned for overturning convictions through DNA testing of evidence. Years of delay followed, but Johnson eventually became the 61st convict to be exonerated with the Innocence Project's help.

"Before this happened, I had a full belief in the criminal justice system and the American way," said Johnson.

He admits to being naÔve, believing that if someone was arrested, he was guilty.

"I didn't have a rounded view of things. I didn't know there might be innocents in prison. Even after my arrest, I never believed I would spend a day in prison. Only when the jury was selected did I realize I might go to prison for a crime I didn't commit. It was a rude awakening."

A new life

Today, almost six years after his release from state prison, Johnson said he feels no bitterness for the wrongful conviction, and credits his faith with making it through prison - and his return to a normal life.

"I give a lot of my credit for my freedom to God and my faith," Johnson said. "Because of that I can walk out and go forth and say I didn't come this far for nothing. There is a reason, a purpose; I can't allow my life to be wasted. If I can make a difference to one person, that next person might be president of the United States, that one person can influence the whole country. You don't know who you're influencing. You could be influencing future judges, lawyers or politicians that are making changes in the law."

Johnson exercised some of his newfound influence when he appeared before a Georgia senate committee considering legislation that would protect DNA evidence from being disposed of for 10 years. In 2003, the state law passed, thereby increasing the use of DNA technology to exonerate individuals rather than simply to convict them. Under previous law, evidence could be destroyed as soon as the trial was over.

In fact, only a miracle saved the biological evidence in Johnson's case so that it could be tested. The box containing the evidence had, when Johnson's trial judge retired, been thrown into a courthouse trashcan and then retrieved at the last moment and placed on a storage shelf.

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