Innocent until proven guilty is a concept many of people are familiar with. Unfortunately mistakes are made all the time and people are sentenced to decades or even life in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
“Fact: innocent people go to prison,” said Lauren McLane, a professor in the UW College of Law and director of the Defender Aid Clinic this last summer.
“I thought the criminal justice system was evil for sentencing me without a real thorough investigation,” Johnson said about his reaction to his sentencing. He ended up serving a total of 24 years in prison after being falsely accused of crimes in 1989 and sentenced to life.
Johnson reached out to the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), a nonprofit that works to correct and prevent wrongful convictions in the region, asking them for help in 2001. He had been charged and convicted for sexual assault and burglary. A few months after receiving his letter, the organization took on Johnson’s case.
“We only take cases where the defendant is wholly innocent,” said Jennifer Springer, the current managing attorney for RMIC. “We don’t take cases that try to prove consent, self defense or if there’s any sign that they are guilty, we close the case and move on.”
“There are a number of reasons why people end up wrongfully imprisoned,” McLane said Monday’s presentation. “The big three we see are false accusations, misidentification by eyewitnesses and official misconduct.” In Johnson’s case, a woman falsely accused him of these crimes.
RMIC worked with various groups to get legislation passed in Wyoming to allow for the submission of new DNA evidence in cases to prove innocence. Johnson was eventually proven innocent after the DNA testing. Students are allowed to work for credit on cases alongside attorneys at RMIC; some UW College of Law students helped research and find information for Johnson’s case between 2001 and 2013.
To date, 2,266 people across the United States have been exonerated. Groups like RMIC, dedicated to correcting wrongful convictions, exist around the country. The national organization The Innocence Project originally started in New York and has now spread across the country and the world, operating in over 46 states and a handful of countries that practice common law.
For Johnson, now nearly 70 years old, the road to getting his life back together is a long one. After being released from prison, he faces the hardship of trying to survive on what little Social Security he qualifies for after been out of the workforce for 24 years. Some states look to compensate exonerees for the decades they’ve lost, but Wyoming currently does not have any systems or laws in place to do so. Johnson has brought a civil suit against the