Man falsely imprisoned on rape charge to receive reparations

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Rickey Johnson knows $150,000 is not adequate payback for the decades he wrongly spent in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. But he also knows it can mean a fresh start when he needs it most.

Johnson, who was freed earlier this year when he was cleared of the rape for which he served 26 years, will get the money thanks to Rep. Frankie Howard, R-Many. Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed the $150,000 in reparations. It will be paid from the general fund for the fiscal year 2007-08.

Johnson learned to craft leather in prison and says he has the leather works business he wants to open here in his hometown ‘‘mapped out.’’

He says he’s just trying to put his life together the best he can, and that means making the best of everything.

Howard says Johnson could get his money as early as this month.

Howard had sought an additional $40,000 for Johnson, but that was not approved with the supplemental bill.

Johnson was released in January based on DNA results proving his innocence, according to the Innocence Project, which represented him.

“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,” 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.

Ironically, he served his prison sentence alongside the man who was later convicted of the crime for which Johnson was serving. The two became acquaintances while in prison, though they never discussed their charges, Johnson said

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.

“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.

“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,” said Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck.

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