Wyoming needs to give a fresh start to man exonerated by DNA evidence
— August 20, 2013
How much should a person be compensated for the loss of his freedom if he is innocent of the crimes that put him in prison?
Right now, the state of Wyoming offers nothing. A legislative committee is working on a bill that would provide $75 per day of incarceration, up to a maximum of $300,000, to state inmates who were wrongfully convicted.
Andrew Johnson, a 63-year-old Cheyenne man who was officially exonerated on August 8 for the 1989 rape of a woman, spent nearly 24 years behind bars as a habitual offender before DNA evidence finally cleared him of the crime. That works out to about $27,375 per year under the proposal, easily reaching the $300,000 cap for the 24 years.
It’s not enough to start a new life, or help make up for the one that was so carelessly taken away for decades by a judicial system that failed him. And how the bill is ultimately written — if it indeed passes and is signed into law — could determine if the measure will be able to provide any compensation at all to Johnson.
“Prison didn’t crush him,” says his Cheyenne attorney, Aaron Lyttle. “It degraded him in some ways, and he has moments when he’s upset, which is pretty understandable. But over the long-term he has a pretty positive outlook. He doesn’t wish any ill will on anyone involved, not the government or his accuser.
“He’s remarkably restrained,” the lawyer adds. “But he does want justice.”
Johnson is calm when he says he understands that people make mistakes. “I make mistakes, too,” he adds. “I’m not out to break the state of Wyoming. The state can’t go back and undo anything, and no amount of money can make up for the things that have happened to me. But they can help make it right. If the state can help me get a decent start, that would be terrific.”
There’s been some confusion in media reports about whether Johnson would be eligible for the state’s compensation under the bill. Lyttle says although the bill does not have a clause that states the payment would be retroactive, it does allow an exonerated person up to two years to file for compensation after his or her innocence has been declared by a court.
Lyttle says the way he interprets the current bill, Johnson would have until August 8, 2015, to apply for the state funds. The panel is scheduled to meet again in November to consider possible changes to the proposal.
“It should be retroactive enough for him,” the attorney notes. “We’re going to follow up with the committee, to make sure that our understanding is correct. We don’t want to hang our hat on it and find out we’re wrong.”
Lyttle has been working on Johnson’s case since 2008, when he was a law student at the University of Wyoming. The College of Law offered a clinic in criminal defense that gave students an opportunity to work on real cases, and Lyttle began working with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC) in Salt Lake City, an organization that helps exonerate prisoners in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Attorneys at the center took up Johnson’s case in May 2000.
“For a long time Andrew was just doing this on his own,” Lyttle recalls. “He was kind of a gadfly in the court system; he just kept filing motions in every court he could think of to get a DNA test. You could tell some of the courts were getting annoyed by it, but what else was he supposed to do?” Johnson has professed his innocence since the day he was arrested.
Lyttle says he soon discovered that his client was “quite the jailhouse lawyer.” Because of overcrowding issues at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, Johnson served part of his sentence at out-of-state prisons. In each institution he worked at the prison library, helping others with their divorce, child custody and immigration cases.
In 2008, the RMIC helped write a bill that passed the Wyoming Legislature and would greatly influence Johnson’s life. It allowed prisoners to petition for post-conviction DNA testing. The DNA process was in its early stages when Johnson’s case went to a jury, but neither the state nor his public defender asked for such a test to compare the results with evidence from the victim’s sexual assault kit.
In February, the Wyoming State Crime Lab determined that the DNA from the seminal fluids matched the victim’s then-fiancè, not Johnson. A judge allowed him to be released on $10,000 bail in April, and an October trial date was set. But after reopening the state’s investigation, Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar concluded there was not enough evidence to prosecute Johnson. In addition to the favorable DNA test results for the defendant, the lead detective who handled the case had died in 2007.
Wyoming would become the 30th state to offer compensation to those wrongfully convicted if the Joint Interim Judiciary Committee’s bill is approved. The state would pay $30,000 annually for up to 10 years. That’s a lot more than some states offer — California’s maximum is a one-time payment of $10,000 — but it’s below the federal policy of $50,000 per year of incarceration.
“He’s having a rough time right now financially,” Lyttle says. An August 11 article by Casper Star-Tribune reporter Megan Cassidy detailed that he is without transportation, and dependent on relatives for his support while he seeks a job. He also has several health problems, including high blood pressure, arthritis in both knees and perhaps glaucoma.
The good news is that since word has spread about Johnson’s plight, Lyttle says, “The public response has been incredible. The Innocence Center has been getting tons of calls from people wanting to donate, and someone in Colorado is going to transfer the title to a car to him.” Johnson says a sympathetic couple has offered a job at a Cheyenne auction house.
“I’m trying to get things together and put a little change in my pocket,” says Johnson, who currently lives with his sister, Sharon Kramer. “I don’t want to be a burden on anybody. I want to have my own place.”
Johnson deserves a place to live and a fresh start. No matter how you slice it, the criminal justice system in the state of Wyoming never gave him a chance to clear his name. That opportunity, through DNA testing, was present at the time of his arrest and it remained there for almost a quarter of a century. He filed motion after motion, and was always told that his actions were “frivolous.” Courts reaffirmed a terrible decision by a jury that spent 15 minutes debating his fate before the state locked him away. The state tried to keep him in prison until he died, but the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center and Lyttle intervened, and now he is free.
But free to do what? He is 63, has health problems and medical bills and no insurance, and no retirement income. He lacks job skills and hasn’t had to function in society for nearly 24 years. Through donations from strangers touched by his plight Johnson may get a little money and some transportation, but he is entitled to compensation from the state.
How can Wyoming lawmakers help Johnson? They should increase the bill to pay the wrongfully convicted $50,000 per year of prison time, with no cap. That’s the federal standard, and it’s a good compromise between the way states like California and Texas have addressed the problem.
Then legislators need to make absolutely sure that Johnson is covered by the measure. The state finally offered post-conviction DNA relief, but that’s not enough. It’s not right if a compensation bill the Legislature crafts only helps people who may be in his situation in the future. It needs to help Johnson, who is the reason this bill is even being considered, because he’s the only one in the state corrections system who has been exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence.
He’s back among us, remarkably free of bitterness. While the state can’t give him back the years he lost — including the time he missed seeing his three daughters grow up and give birth to his grandchildren — it must give him a fresh start. As Johnson says, with total sincerity, that would be terrific.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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