Claiming innocence, Alabama inmate on death row seeks new trial

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Toforest Johnson, 49, has spent half his life on Alabama’s death row for the murder of a deputy sheriff, a murder he claims he did not commit.

Johnson’s lawyers asked the Alabama Supreme Court on Friday to “correct a grave wrong” and allow him a new trial. The filing is the latest attempt in a case in which former judges, prosecutors and the local prosecutor have joined calls to re-examine the 1998 conviction and death penalty.

Johnson’s lawyers are asking the judges to review a lower court decision rejecting the new trial request. They argued that the conviction was based on the testimony of a single witness who was awarded a reward and that her testimony “contradicted the physical evidence and was directly contradicted by the state’s theory of the case in other proceedings.”

“The first thing you need to know is that he is innocent … Former prosecutors have said so themselves that more eyes should be drawn on this case and that he deserves a new trial,” Johnson’s daughter, Shanaye Poole, said in a statement. interview by phone. .

Johnson was sentenced to death for the murder of Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff William Hardy. Hardy was shot twice in the head in 1995 while off duty at a hotel security. The conviction came after Johnson’s first trial ended with a hung jury. A co-defendant in the case was acquitted.

Poole was just 5 when her father was sentenced to death. She sat on someone’s shoulders to peer out the window of the courtroom door to see her father. “That was the last time I saw my father in person before his freedom was taken from him,” she said.

Former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, former Chief Justice Drayton Nabers, and several former judges and prosecutors filed brief documents with the court, or wrote editorials in support of a new trial for Johnson. Danny Carr, the district attorney in the county where Johnson was convicted, also called for a new trial.

Baxley, who worked decades ago to reinstate the death penalty in Alabama, said he is usually skeptical of such innocence claims made by what he called “benefactor” lawyers. But he said he was surprised at the matter.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I was just stunned that, in Alabama, a case as weak as it would have come before the jury, let alone a death sentence,” Baxley said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

US Supreme Court ordered a new hearing in 2017 on Johnson’s claim of withheld evidence

The prosecution’s key witness at the 1998 trial testified that, while eavesdropping on a telephone conversation, she overheard a man she believed Johnson had admitted to the crime. She was paid $5,000 for her testimony in 2001, and Johnson’s attorneys allege that the state withheld evidence of monetary motivation for the testimony.

A judge dismissed the new trial request in 2020, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld that decision in May, ruling that Johnson’s attorneys had not determined that the witness had “put forward information in hopes of getting the reward or that the state ever knew of such a hope before Johnson’s trial.”

The Alabama Attorney General’s office has resisted the request for a new trial. State attorneys argued that the witness testified that she was unaware that a reward had been offered when she contacted police.

Recent court proceedings have focused closely on the pay issue, but Baxley said the case deserves a more complete investigation.

“Every breath this man takes on death row is an indictment of the people of Alabama that I love so much,” Baxley said. “If a good court will look at it, they will come to the same conclusion.”

Alabama Chief Justice Drayton Nabers Jr. this spring in an op-ed that “there is now substantial evidence that Mr Johnson is innocent.” Carr wrote in 2020 that he was not taking a stance on Johnson’s innocence or guilt, but said there are concerns about his trial. Johnson in another part of town at the time of the shooting.

“The duty of a prosecutor is not only to secure convictions, but also to seek justice,” the letter said. “It is the position of the prosecutor that in the interest of justice, Mr Johnson, who has been on death row for more than two decades, is given a new trial.”