After 16 years in prison Lorenzo Johnson was released on bail after the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found the evidence upon which his conviction was based was insufficient. Five months later, the U.S. Supreme Court, in deference to the findings of the state trial court, reversed the appeals court and Mr. Johnson went back to prison to continue his life sentence.
Whether or not Lorenzo Johnson is morally responsible of the crime for which he was convicted, we do not know. What we do believe is this: under the laws of the State of Pennsylvania, the state did not prove he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Conviction Reversed and Released from Prison
In October 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The court reversed Johnson’s conviction, finding that the state did not present sufficient evidence to sustain his conviction. The appeals court ordered a federal district court to issue a writ of habeas corpus and command Johnson’s release from the Pennsylvania prison system.
The opinion of the Appeals Court is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it was a split decision with a forceful dissent that laid the framework for The U.S. Supreme Court’s later opinion. Second, it was a “not precedential” decision, meaning it had little, if any, precedential value. Under the Third Circuit’s own rules, “not precedential” decisions are not “regarded as precedents that bind the court because they do not circulate to the full court before filing.”
U.S. Supreme Court Reverse Appeals Court and Johnson Taken Back to Prison
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office timely petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court for a review of the Third Circuit’s decision. The Pennsylvania Attorney General knew that the Supreme Court reverses about 75 percent of the circuit court decisions it elects to rule upon. And the high court granted certiorari relief to the Attorney General, reversing the Third Circuit’s reversal of Johnson’s conviction, effectively reinstating Johnson’s conviction in May 2012.
Johnson was re-arrested and placed back in custody of the Pennsylvania prison system where he remains serving a life sentence without the benefit of parole.
The Murder of Taraja Williams
The case of Lorenzo Johnson began with the December 15, 1995 murder of Taraja Williams in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There seems to be no question that Williams was gunned down by Corey Walker; and there was convincing evidence that Johnson was with Walker when Walker shot Williams in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun in an alley on Market Street, not far from the Midnight Special bar. There was convincing evidence that Walker was in the bar with Williams on the night of the murder, although the evidence was contradictory as to whether Johnson was also in the bar with the two men. The only evidence that placed Johnson in the bar came from a crack cocaine addict who was a friend of Williams and from whom she purchased drugs.
What is also fairly certain is this: Walker and Johnson were friends. Witness testimony said they “ran the streets together.”
On the night of December 14, 1995, the night before the shooting, the duo, accompanied by Victoria Doubs, went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant where they encountered Taraja Williams, a known drug dealer. Walker confronted Williams about some money the drug dealer owed Walker. The confrontation escalated into a fight with Williams soundly beating Walker with a broomstick. Walker was humiliated by Williams. Bystanders laughed at Walker who reportedly said “I’m going to kill that crackhead.”
Life Without Parole
The police quickly gathered evidence that Walker was seen entering the alley with Williams on December 15, that witnesses heard a shotgun blast, and that Williams’ body was found in the alley. They arrested Walker and he was charged with first degree murder. Johnson was arrested and charged as his accomplice. The two men were tried together, convicted, and both given life without parole sentences.
Johnson appealed his conviction, raising several claims for a new trial—the most contentious being that the State did not offer sufficient evidence that he was Walker’s accomplice in the Williams murder.
Pennsylvania law defines first-degree murder as a willful, deliberate and premeditated act.
Evidence Insufficient to Show Johnson was an Accomplice
An accomplice under Pennsylvania law is an individual operating “with the intent of promoting or facilitating the commission of an offense;” or agreeing, aiding, or attempting to aid another individual in the “planning or committing” the offense. Put simply, the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson was an “active participant” in the murder of Williams and that he shared Walker’s intent to kill Williams.
As the Third Circuit noted in its 2011 decision, the “Commonwealth offered no direct proof of Johnson’s intentions relying instead on circumstantial evidence and the inferences that can be drawn therefrom.” That circumstantial evidence included:
- Johnson, Walker and Williams were seen arguing in the Midnight Special bar and were told to leave the premises on the night of the murder;
- That the trio left the bar, with the victim walking between Walker and Johnson;
- That the trio proceeded to an alley and a shot was heard;
- That two individuals were seen running from the alley; and
- Williams’ body was discovered in the alley, along with a shotgun.
Inferences Must be “Reasonable”
Both federal and Pennsylvania law permit a jury to draw inferences from circumstantial evidence upon which guilt can be based. But, under Pennsylvania law, the inference must be “reasonable”—one where the fact inferred is “more likely than not to flow from the proved fact on which it is made to depend.” And that is the legal rub in Johnson’s case.
The “fact” was never proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson shared Walker’s intent to kill Williams and that he assisted Walker in carrying out the murder. The testimony that placed Johnson at the alley and that two individuals—neither of whom were identified as Johnson—were seen running from the alley immediately after the shot was fired is not a “fact” that proved Johnson intended to be Walker’s accomplice. The Third Circuit agreed:
“We find the record lacking in sufficient evidence to support the necessary conclusion that Johnson shared Walker’s intent to murder Williams and that Johnson acted in a manner that encouraged or facilitated the murder.”
Law Requires Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt of Each Element
This Third Circuit conclusion was based on a 1979 Supreme Court decision in Jackson v. Virginia which held that the “Constitution prohibits the criminal conviction of any person except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt” of each element of the offense. The court narrowed its finding by saying such as conclusion can be made by a reviewing court only after it determines “whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt.”
High Bar Set by U.S. Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has set a high bar—one like the proverbial camel passing through the eye of a needle—for state prisoners seeking to overturn their convictions in federal court through writs of habeas corpus of insufficiency of evidence claims. The high court has held that a federal habeas court may not overturn a state court finding that there was sufficient evidence to convict “simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court.” The only way, the court has said, a federal may overturn such a state court finding is when that finding is “objectively unreasonable.”
In overturning the Third Circuit’s decision in the Johnson case, the Supreme Court said the appeals court “failed to afford due respect to the role of the jury and the state courts of Pennsylvania.”
Support for Lorenzo Johnson’s innocence has remarkably increased since the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision. The Human Rights Coalition has waged a Herculean effort to take Johnson’s case to the public. They point to the fact that Johnson turned down a plea deal requiring him to point a finger as Walker. The group raises the possibility that Johnson had “alibi witnesses [that] he was in NYC at the time of the shooting.” They say the police either coerced or gave favors to witnesses—a charge they say is supported by evidence one witness was released from prison on an unrelated case after the prosecution made a remark on the record about “her cooperation in testifying against Johnson.”
Johnson’s State of Mind Never Proved Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
We don’t know what Johnson was thinking the night Corey Walker gunned down Taraja Williams because the state failed to prove Johnson’s state of mind at the time of the murder.
And that is the very essence of the problem with Johnson’s conviction.
We accept that Johnson was with Walker the night Williams was killed. But there is not a single thread of evidence that he shared Walker’s intent to kill Williams or that he took a single action to assist Walker in carrying out the murder.
It is disturbing the highest court in our land, the U.S. Supreme Court, uses procedural barriers and legalese to deny individuals a real opportunity to argue their innocence. But they do and all too often…
Lorenzo Johnson has spent nearly two decades in prison. It is time, we believe, for the State of Pennsylvania to remedy the injustice in this case.