DNA evidence exonerates a Missouri man after he spends nearly two decades in prison for a rape he did not commit.
There was no physical evidence tying Johnson to the January 1984 kidnapping, rape and sodomy of a young St. Louis University student. He did not fit the description of the assailant, nor the composite sketch the victim helped police create. Yet in August 1984, Johnson stood in a courtroom and heard the jury proclaim he was guilty of these crimes. He was sentenced to life plus fifteen years in prison.
The victim was attacked in her car at knifepoint by an African American male wearing a sweatshirt and scarf to conceal his face. After the assault, the student drove home and called police. She was taken to the hospital where a rape kit was collected.
She told police her assailant was clean-shaven and pudgy. She was shown more than 100 photos, including Johnson’s. At the bottom of each photo, police wrote information about each suspect, including past criminal record and addresses.
Johnson had a rap sheet. He’d been paroled in 1982 after serving seven years for rape. In 1983, a jury acquitted him in another rape case.
The victim identified Johnson despite his mustache and 128-pound frame. She also chose him in a live lineup. Days later, Johnson was arrested.
At trial, defense attorneys were prevented from eliciting information about the DNA collected from the victim and her clothing. Based almost exclusively on the victim’s identification, Johnson was convicted.
In 1996, after his appeals had been denied, Johnson contacted the Innocence Project in New York, insisting that a DNA test would prove his innocence. Attorney Cheryl Pilate, who worked with the Innocence Project at the time, agreed to represent him. Six years later, after an arduous legal battle, the Innocence Project was told the Circuit Attorney was going to hold a press conference, announcing that DNA testing excluded Johnson as the rapist. He was released and exonerated July 30, 2002.
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