Lawyer Johnson

Exoneree Name

State: Massachusetts

Convicted: 1972

Exonerated: 1982

Race: Black

DNA used in exoneration? No

Reasons for wrongful conviction:

False Eyewitness Testimony

Lawyer's Wrongful Conviction

Lawyer Johnson was only 19 years old when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair for a crime he did not commit. The case against him was entirely based on inconsistent witness testimony. Mr. Johnson was the last person to be sentenced to death in Massachusetts before the Commonwealth outlawed the death penalty.

When he won a retrial, a biased all-white jury sentenced him to life in prison. While in prison, Mr. Johnson found solace in painting and said “If there’s no beauty, I have the ability to create beauty.”

All charges against him were finally dropped when a witness, who was a child when the murder occurred, came forward and identified the Commonwealth’s original witness as the true perpetrator of the crime. She also testified that she had come forward at the time of the investigation but was told by authorities that they already had a person in mind for the conviction. Lawyer Johnson was exonerated in 1982 after serving 10 years in prison, two of which were on death row.

Lawyer's Work Today

After his release he worked with State Senator Pat Jilhan to pass the Massachusetts Wrongful Convictions Compensation Law to compensate those who lost years of their lives due to a wrongful conviction. In 2004, after over two decades of efforts, the bill was finally approved. However, to Mr. Johnson’s and Senator Jelhan’s outrage, the Attorney General stepped in and stripped the bill of its most important elements before it was passed into law. They have continued their efforts to update the statute so that exonerees can receive fair and timely recompense.

Mr. Johnson has never received appropriate compensation and struggles to have his life fully restored. Mr. Johnson is a dedicated community activist in Massachusetts. He speaks to universities, schools and other groups about his experience and the need for death penalty abolition. He wants to educate children about how to “avoid the traps that get can them thrown in the justice web” and ensure they know their rights.

Among other issues, he is fighting to take down the immunity given to District Attorneys which gives them the power to sweep the truth under the rug. He is heartened by the election of a progressive DA in Boston and the possibility to effect change in partnership with this new movement of anti-death penalty DAs.