Criminal Justice

Another DNA Exoneration in Mississippi

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Arthur Johnson is finally free, after serving 16 years for a rape he did not commit.  His case is yet another example of just how incredibly stubborn Mississippi judges and prosecutors can be to revisit a conviction, even when presented with overwhelming evidence of innocence.

Despite several alibi witnesses, a Sunflower County jury convicted Johnson of a 1992 rape and burglary based on the victim's identification. Judge Ashley Hines sentenced him to 55 years behind bars in 1993. Prior to his conviction, Johnson had no criminal record, and the prosecution presented no physical evidence of his guilt during the trial.

Maw first petitioned for a DNA test to prove Johnson's innocence in 2005. After two years of delays, the test results conclusively proved Johnson's innocence November 2007. The Mississippi Supreme Court ordered Sunflower County to review the case Jan. 4, 2008, which it did Feb. 25. Despite the evidence of Johnson's innocence in the rape, Hines, again presiding in the Sunflower County Circuit Court, ordered a new trial and levied a $25,000 bail. Sunflower District Attorney Dewayne Richardson said he would retry Johnson, claiming the eyewitness identification was correct.

Incredible.  It wasn't until Innocence Project attorney Emily Maw insisted that Mississippi run the DNA from the rape kit through the state's database and a match was found that the judge and prosecutor finally admitted Johnson is innocent.  Their obstinacy ought to be criminal.  It bears a striking resemblance to what happened in the Kennedy Brewer case.

Maw is asking that Johnson be given a public hearing and an official apology, but she says the chances of that happening are "slim."  My work on these issues in Mississippi suggests she's right.  What's particularly troubling about Mississippi is not that it's criminal justice system is flawed.  These problems exist all over the country.  It's the utter lack of shame from Mississippi's public officials in these cases.  There's little embarrassment, remorse, or interest in doing anything other than the minimum they think they can get by with in order to make people stop asking questions.