Man wrongly imprisoned for 26 years gains his freedom

Kelly Moore

Rickey Johnson, who has been incarcerated for nearly 26 years for a rape he did not commit, was released Monday based on DNA results proving his innocence, according to the Innocence Project, which represents him.

Johnson, who was 26 when he was arrested for the crime, is scheduled to speak at a press conference in Baton Rouge this week with the family of Archie Williams, who has been fighting for 13 years for DNA testing that could prove his innocence.

“Rickey Johnson lost more than a quarter of a century, nearly his entire adult life, to a wrongful conviction. He had three young children when he was arrested, and a fourth was born shortly after he was incarcerated; all of those children are now adults, and he has grandchildren he’s never met,” said Vanessa Potkin, the Innocence Project staff attorney representing Johnson.

“Rickey Johnson’s long nightmare will be in vain if we don’t learn from it and make sure other people in Louisiana have access to DNA testing that can prove their innocence.”

Johnson was arrested in 1982 for the rape of a woman in Many in July 1982. The victim said a man broke into her home at 1 a.m. and stayed for several hours, during which he raped her. She later identified Johnson in a photo array that included an old photo of Johnson and just two other photos.

Johnson was convicted of the rape in January 1983 and sentenced to life without parole. He has been at Louisiana’s Angola Farm Prison ever since.

In June 2007, the Innocence Project (which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law) asked Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett to agree to DNA testing on a vaginal swab collected after the rape. Within days, Burkett agreed, and testing was conducted.

The DNA profile did not match Johnson, and late last week, state officials entered the DNA profile in a database of convicted offenders -- yielding a match to John Carnell McNeal, who was already in prison for a rape in the same apartment complex just nine months after the rape for which Johnson was wrongfully convicted.

After McNeal was convicted of the April 1983 rape, he was sentenced to life without parole and has been serving time at Angola Farm with Johnson; the two men were acquaintances for the past two decades.

“If police and prosecutors had not focused on Rickey Johnson so early in their investigation -- and if a proper eyewitness identification procedure had been used instead of a deeply flawed photo lineup -- the real perpetrator might have been brought to justice sooner and might not have been free to rape another woman in the same apartment complex,” Potkin said. “Anyone who doubts that our criminal justice system is stronger when we take steps to prevent wrongful convictions should take a close look at Rickey Johnson’s case.”

At the suggestion of Calvin Willis, an Innocence Project client who served more than 21 years at Angola before DNA testing exonerated him in 2003, Johnson wrote to the Innocence Project seeking assistance.

He wrote that he wanted help getting “the DNA that will give me my life back” and said, “I am not the man that did this rape -- all I want is to go home.”

In 2005, Johnson’s daughter Lakeisha Butts wrote to the Innocence Project: “My father Rickey Johnson was wrongfully charged and sentenced to life -- 21 years have now passed and my dad has been stripped from his children and family on a charge he is not guilty of, and the real perpetrator of this heinous act was granted the advantage of walking free and having the opportunity to be surrounded by his family. We, the children of Rickey Johnson, need your assistance in exonerating our father.”

The Innocence Project took the case in 2006 and quickly located the evidence. Once Burkett agreed to DNA testing, a state judge granted a motion to test the evidence at Reliagene, a private lab based in New Orleans.

Basic DNA testing yielded only a partial profile, and more sophisticated testing (known as Minifiler DNA testing) provided a full profile.

In late December, Johnson’s DNA profile was compared with the profile on the vaginal swab, and he was excluded; last week, state officials matched the profile to McNeal, whose DNA profile was in the state’s database of convicted offenders.

The Innocence Project has commended Burkett for quickly agreeing to conduct DNA testing in Johnson’s case.

While Louisiana passed a state law allowing access to post-conviction DNA testing in 2001, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau has fought DNA testing for years in two Innocence Project cases.

In Archie Williams’ case, Moreau has refused to conduct DNA testing for 13 years; a state appeals court finally ordered DNA testing in the case in August, but Moreau has appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Just last week, the state Supreme Court rejected Moreau’s effort to continue blocking DNA testing for Kenneth Reed, who initially requested testing two years ago.

In the two unrelated cases, Williams and Reed were convicted of raping women who did not know their attacker -- making them the most straight-forward types of cases for DNA testing to prove guilt or innocence.

“More than anything else, Rickey Johnson owes his freedom to the fact that he is in Sabine Parish, with a cooperative district attorney who recognizes his legal and moral obligation to conduct DNA testing. If he had been in East Baton Rouge, Rickey Johnson would likely still be at Angola, still fighting for the DNA testing that would prove his innocence,” said Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck.

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