From wrongful conviction to a 'very beautiful life'

Issue April 2005

Photo by David Gordon
Noted defense attorney Barry Scheck (right) talks with local exoneree Ulysses Charks during a reception before Annual Dinner 2005.
The hair samples didn't match.

He had an alibi and a beard unlike the actual rapist, who had no facial hair.

And the victim did not pick him out of a lineup.

But for Calvin C. Johnson, Jr., this evidence did not matter for 16 more years until he was finally released from a Georgia prison after DNA evidence exonerated him from a rape he did not commit.

"I never believed I would do a day in prison because I knew I didn't do it," said Johnson, keynote speaker for the Annual Dinner of Annual Conference 2005 and author of Exit to Freedom. "I knew I was innocent."

Johnson delivered a stirring address during the dinner, describing the humiliation and atrocities he faced while sitting years behind bars.

His horrifying ordeal began with his arrest and subsequent conviction by an all-white jury who had listened to a tearful in-court identification by the victim.

Johnson was sentenced to life and he served nearly two decades. He was humiliated, made to perform manual labor in a chain gang.

As he sat in prison, he remained steadfast against admitting guilt even though it could mean he would be eligible for parole.

Still, Johnson persevered, eventually gaining the attention of the Innocence Project. DNA evidence that was nearly thrown in the trash proved he did not commit the crime. He believes the hand of God prevented that evidence from being thrown away as it was pulled out of a trash can by a court worker who thought it might be important to keep.

Since being released from prison, Johnson has married and now has a family and is busy with work. Still, his years in prison continue to haunt him.

"Now I have a very, very, very beautiful life," Johnson said. "But keep this in mind, just because one person said, 'He did it,' based on eyewitness identification, I spent 16 years of my life (in prison) before DNA freed me."

Noted criminal defense attorney Barry Scheck, a pioneer in the use of DNA techniques to defend the accused, introduced Johnson.

Calling Johnson "one of the most articulate voices," Scheck said he is amazed at how Johnson remained sane throughout his 16-year ordeal. He also advocated for lawyers to do what they can to fight against wrongful convictions.

"There are things we can do to decrease the number of individuals wrongfully convicted," Scheck said.

MBA President Kathleen M. O'Donnell used the Annual Dinner as an opportunity to award grants to Johnson's Georgia Innocence Project, Scheck's Innocence Project and the New England Innocence Project. Five local exonerees and representatives of the New England Innocence Project attended the dinner.