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.