Solitary Confinement

A Philly Man Who Spent 37 Years of a 50-Year Prison Sentence in Solitary Confinement Has Been Freed

Arthur Johnson spent his entire adult life in jail for a murder he says he was coerced to confess to by police.

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A Philadelphia man who spent 50 years in prison—37 of them in solitary confinement—was released Wednesday after a judge agreed with prosecutors that the murder case for which he was convicted was compromised with false and "highly suspect" statements.

Arthur Johnson was convicted for the murder of Jerome Wakefield in 1970, when Johnson was 18. Prosecutors said Johnson stabbed Wakefield after the victim had been shot by Johnson's codefendant, Gary Brame, who was just 15.

Johnson confessed to the stabbing, but subsequently said the confession was coerced out of him after he was abused in police custody for more than 20 hours. Since then, Brame has also said that Johnson had no involvement in Wakefield's killing.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday that Johnson, with the support of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), was freed. Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio permitted Johnson to plead guilty to a lesser crime with a 10–20-year prison sentence. He has already served that time.

After failed prison escape attempts back in 1979, Johnson was relegated to solitary confinement and was kept in a cell for at least 23 hours a day for years. Johnson sued over that treatment in 2017 with the help of the Abolitionist Law Center, a Pittsburgh-based prisoner rights law firm. It took two hearings to convince a U.S. district judge that Johnson was no longer an escape risk 37 years later—only then was he moved into the general prison population. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, despite a prison deputy superintendent referring to Johnson as a "model prisoner," other prison officials argued against releasing him from solitary. They insisted he might try to escape again, despite him being 65 years old when he sued.

Johnson's release this week doesn't technically count as exoneration, but it's nevertheless one of many conviction corrections coordinated in recent years by Philly's CIU, launched in 2018 under reformer District Attorney Larry Krasner and Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings. The CIU put out a report in June describing the 21 exonerations it had coordinated since its founding. These exonerated men had spent between them 384 years in prison. In 20 of these cases, the CIU found evidence of misconduct by officials. Exculpatory evidence was withheld in each case, police had engaged in misconduct in three-quarters of them, and official perjury was discovered in half of them.

The report also describes some of the difficulties the CIU has faced dealing with judges who seem skeptical and surprised to find prosecutors working alongside the defense instead of against them. And judges seem quick to excuse government misconduct and its role in putting innocent men behind bars:

The CIU has encountered judges who are all too ready to credit weak excuses proffered by even repeat offenders in law enforcement. One explanation for this deference may be that many judges are former prosecutors or products of past administrations' culture and so have misconceptions about how prosecutors should behave. But even judges from other backgrounds are often reluctant to recognize how pervasive prosecutorial misconduct can be. What that is the case, officials accused of misconduct are likely to find a "sympathetic ear" ready to listen to any reason they might offer for their allegedly problematic behavior.

The full report is available online here, featuring summaries of some of the cases where the CIU has arranged exonerations. Chester Hollman, an exoneree who spent 25 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, was the focus of an episode of The Innocence Files, a nine-episode documentary series available on Netflix.

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  1. But even judges from other backgrounds are often reluctant to recognize how pervasive prosecutorial misconduct can be.

    That’s bull. It’s an open secret that when cops get on the stand it’s called “testilying.” Being that prosecutors have complete immunity, it’s no surprise that they routinely withhold exculpatory evidence. The worst that could happen is they lose the case. Cops, prosecutors and judges are all on the same team, so they all cover for each other.
    And people wonder why I have zero faith in the system.

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    3. You are absolutely correct. As bad as it is in our criminal court system it is even worse in our Civil Court where justice is bought & sold by the judicial club’s members. Attorneys pick & choose and potential litigants lose – I can understand why an attorney would turn down the opportunity to represent an individual because of the investment & possible losses involved in a losing contingency fee based case, but when then also turn down a retainer based upon their hourly rates, what is an American who is seeking justice supposed to do?

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  2. This is the result of “tough on crime” culture. Republicans are tough on crime. Democrats don’t want to be seen as soft on crime, so they try to outdo the Republicans. In the meantime the system is overflowing with corruption. Bad cops, bad district attorneys, bad judges. All of whom are sacred to Republicans, and sacred to Democrats as well because they don’t want to be seen as soft on crime.

    And every time there’s a single murder somewhere everyone demands that Republicans and Democrats get tougher on crime.

    1. But they had every right to shoot trespassers on public property.

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    2. Shorter Brandytwit: The people who had no direct involvement in any this are clearly the ones who bear the blame!

    3. Literally two posts from screetch and you that say the exact same thing. Ho hum both sides are bad nothing can be done.

      And you well know who’s running major cities, and it’s not the GOP, so stuff your whataboutism.

    4. >>Democrats don’t want to be seen as soft on crime

      Biden wrote the current book

    5. No matter what the Democrats do, it’s always the fault of the GOP with you, isn’t it?

      Here’s a much simpler and more rational explanation: Democrats love fining people to get revenue, they love locking people up because they are in bed with public sector unions. The legal profession and law schools are overwhelmingly in bed with Democrats, which is why they like criminalizing and regulating things. And historically, Democrats were eugenicists who loved to lock up (and sterilize and experiment on) blacks and other people they considered undesirable.

      GOP voters and politicians just want rapists and murderers locked up.

      1. Don’t forget GOPers wanting people to spend years in jail for possession of pot, so there’s that. The good ‘ol War on (some) Drugs…

  3. Did they play Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom when they released him?

  4. 37 years in solitary?

    They might as well have killed him.

    I doubt he can live anything like a normal life now.

  5. What a horrible story. Poor man. I can’t wait to hear Tucker Carlson’s monologue about this injustice. I’ll be surprised if this gets even 50 comments here from the typical red outrage merchants.

  6. He gets released from prison, looks at Philly then asks to go back

  7. Wonder if Scott is aware that hundreds of trespassers are being held without bond in solitary confinement in DC by the federal government. Seems like it might be of interest to a libertarian. Oh that’s right. This is Reason. No libertarians need apply.

    1. hey she thought she was going to get murdered *and* raped.

  8. Hope they don’t make this poor bastard jump through a million hoops as a condition for his release.

  9. ~~ looks for upside maybe 37 years in solitary is better than 37 years in Philly?

    1. 37 years without cheesesteaks or beefsteaks.

  10. Because murderers and their accomplices always tell the truth, and a politically motivated CIU would never soft-peddle a convict’s guilt for a flashy result.

  11. Right on, brother. Enjoy the sun and fresh air.
    Fuck those pigs.

  12. Judges here in Philadelphia are elected and then face retention IIRC every 10 years.

    Since the City Charter attempts to achieve a veneer of impartiality with the city-level Judiciary, judges cannot advocate or even mention for that matter any specific “platform” as you would use the term in the normal sense for a political campaign. Each judge running for election may file to appear on BOTH major party tickets (although the Repubs in Phila may not remain a major party much longer).

    IIRC the local Bar Association is permitted to endorse a judge’s candidacy.

    It is the worst kept secret in Phila politics that if you want to run for any given judicial opening, if you meet the legal requirements for the candidacy, the position on the endorsed Democratic ticket in the primary (which is the real election, not the general in the fall) goes to the highest bidders. Last I heard a $35-40k “donation” to the Phila Democrat City Committe got you any spot you wanted.

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