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Lawyer Johnson (1951-2022)

Exoneree Name

State: Massachusetts

Convicted: 1972

Exonerated: 1982

Race: Black

DNA used in exoneration? No

Reasons for wrongful conviction:

False Eyewitness Testimony


It is with heavy hearts that we share the news that WTI member Lawyer Johnson passed away in March 2022. He was a beloved part of our community of death row exonerees. He was an intellectual who thought deeply about the injustices present in our society and in the criminal legal system. He spoke strongly to all who would listen to bring light to those truths, and he spent decades supporting efforts for justice locally in Boston, nationally and internationally. Lawyer was a humble and private man who stayed out of the spotlight. Most people will never know his name, never know the suffering he endured as a wrongfully convicted man and the last person in Massachusetts to be sentenced to death, and never know his steadfast commitment to speaking truth to power and to contributing in any way he could to prevent others from suffering the injustices he endured. We at WTI will always remember our brother and his beautiful and courageous spirit. God grant him peace.

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.

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.

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

One issue he felt strongly about is the immunity given to District Attorneys enabling them to sweep the truth under the rug. He was heartened by the election of a progressive DA in Boston and the possibility for change through the new movement of anti-death penalty DAs.

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