Thursday, 17 January 2008

DNA Says ‘Not Guilty’ 16 Years Later

by Ronni Mott
Photo by B. Hunter McGee
January 16, 2008

Arthur Johnson may be returning home in a matter of days, 16 years after his arrest for a rape he did not commit. On Friday, Jan. 4, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered Sunflower County to review Johnson’s case based on post-conviction DNA testing that conclusively eliminates him as the perpetrator.

“I’ve never seen a Supreme Court act so fast in my life,” said Emily Maw, director of the Louisiana office of the Innocence Project in New Orleans, and one of Johnson’s attorneys. Maw said they filed with the court in mid-December and, typically, the court may take several months to respond.

When Sunflower County sets aside the 15-year-old verdict—Johnson spent a year in prison prior to his trial—it will be a historic moment; he will be the first Mississippi prisoner exonerated based on post-conviction DNA testing. District Attorney Dwayne Richardson will be in charge of the case review for Sunflower County.

Richardson did not return calls.

“We expect they will want to see justice in this case,” Maw said. “Basically, the ball is in the DA’s court.”

The Innocence Project is a nationwide non-profit organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the justice system to prevent future injustice. Maw represented Johnson along with Jackson attorney Robert McDuff.

“We’re hoping that (Richardson) will agree with us that this DNA evidence requires that Mr. Johnson’s conviction be dismissed, and that he be let out of prison,” McDuff said.

“When we got the results of the testing, they very clearly exclude Arthur Johnson as the donor of the seminal fluid found on the underwear of the victim,” Maw said.

After a two-day trial, a Sunflower County jury convicted Johnson in 1993 when he was 34 years old, and the judge sentenced him to 55 years in prison. Without the intervention of the Innocence Project, he would have likely died behind bars.

“We just stumbled upon his case,” Maw said, adding, “We happened to figure out that the evidence was still there in his case, because of the clerk of court, who I just think can’t get enough credit for this for having kept the evidence.” The clerk, Sharon McFadden, had no reason to keep the evidence. “Many people just throw this stuff out,” Maw said.

Preservation of evidence is one of the primary legislative targets for the Innocence Project in Mississippi. Currently, there are no laws that require courts to keep biological evidence after a conviction, a fact that makes it impossible for many wrongfully convicted defendants to prove their innocence today.

Johnson had no violent criminal history prior to his arrest. The rape victim’s identification was the only evidence linking him to the crime. No physical evidence existed at the time of his trial, and Johnson even had several alibi witnesses. But in the face of the victim’s identification, the jury found him guilty.

It is a textbook case for the Innocence Project, which has found mistaken eyewitness testimony in nearly 80 percent of the 210 post-conviction DNA exonerations since 1989.

“If you have a rape victim, and she sits there and points a finger at the guy and says, ‘He raped me,’ that’s very, very powerful stuff,” author John Grisham told the Jackson Free Press in a recent interview. “And that’s right about half the time.”

Grisham helped establish the Mississippi office of the Innocence Project at Ole Miss, serves on the board and is an outspoken advocate for their cause.

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