DNA evidence frees Ga. man after 16 years in prison

Scientific test unavailable at his rape trial in 1983

June 16, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JONESBORO, Ga. -- Just before he was sentenced to life in prison for a rape he did not commit, Calvin Johnson Jr. told the judge that his moment of redemption would come.

"With God as my witness, I have been falsely accused of these crimes," he said in court in November 1983. "I did not commit them. I'm an innocent man, and I just pray in the name of Jesus Christ that all this truth will be brought out, the truth will eventually be brought out."

Yesterday, nearly 16 years later, Johnson's truth was finally brought out.

After a DNA test -- unavailable in 1983 -- proved that Johnson could not have committed the crime, a different judge signed the papers that released him into a hazy spring afternoon and the arms of his family.

He gamely shook the hand of the prosecutor who put him into Hancock State Prison, thanked God and his lawyers for the blessings of freedom and wondered where he would find a job.

Johnson was freed through the work of Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, two well-known New York lawyers who served on the O. J. Simpson defense team and whose organization, the Innocence Project, has helped to exonerate 36 prisoners around the country through DNA evidence.

Of those, Johnson served the longest term before being released.

Johnson, who held a small New Testament in his hand as the judge signed the order, said he bore no bitterness toward the prosecutor, the victim or the legal system.

"Bitterness will just destroy you," he said. But Johnson, who is black, added that he knew when he saw the all-white jury in 1983 that he would not be acquitted.

On three occasions, Johnson rejected offers of parole because he would not sign an admission of guilt.

Johnson, who holds a bachelor's degree in mass communications from Clark Atlanta University, said his religious faith helped him through each day of those 16 years, never allowing him to despair. Now, he said, he was only looking forward, not back.

"I've spent the last 16 years working for free, and now I need a job," said Johnson, 41, who had worked as a courier. And with that, he and his 70-year-old father got into a car and drove to a hospital to see his mother, who suffered a stroke four months ago.

She had not been told in advance that he was a free man.

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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