Judge H. Lee Sarokin recently wrote an article entitled "The Guilty Have a Better Chance for Parole or Pardon Than the Innocent." As an innocent prisoner, I've witnessed this myself for the last two decades (and counting). The only thing that has changed over time is that more and more corruption is being exposed. The internet and social media are bringing our stories to light at an alarming rate.
It takes a lot for a judge to speak out on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. Innocent prisoners, as a whole, commend these judges for their bravery and good faith. You might think that honesty is a requirement for being a government official -- but that's not always the case. Honesty is often suppressed, the truth gets covered up, and the victims are the innocent and our families. For each of the last two years, records were set in the number of exonerations nationwide: 127 in 2014 and 149 in 2015. People are starting to wonder whether our judicial system ever be fixed.
One thing that officials have conceded--unanimously--is that we need "prison reform." Usually, the conversation focuses on how often African Americans are targeted more, arrested more, and given longer prison sentences than Caucasian Americans. If they have conceded that our criminal justice system needs reform, why not acknowledge the elephant in the room--innocent prisoners? Despite the record numbers of exonerations, the topic of innocent prisoners is left out when politicians are speaking of reform. And this issue isn't separate from racial inequality--the overwhelming majority of wrongfully convicted prisoners are people of color.
There are statutes that stand in the way of bringing the truth to light. In many cases, even if we show our innocence, if we don't abide by strict and timely procedures, we are prohibited from bringing evidence of our innocence before the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court stands by these laws and procedures. You can be innocent and have evidence to clear you, but if you file your appeal just one hour past the deadline, your appeal is labeled "time barred." This means you have defaulted your appeal rights and can no longer raise your innocence claims without providing new evidence.
Filing an appeal too late trumps innocence. Corrupt prosecutors would rather an innocent prisoner serve life in prison for filing an appeal late than see a wrongful conviction overturned. Those prosecutors are protected by the law and hide behind these strict guidelines and appeal procedures. African Americans are the most affected by this madness. But none of this is news. For us, what we endure is like a ghost from slavery. For too many officers of the court, it's not about doing what's right -- it's about getting and maintaining convictions by any means necessary. They don't care about our families being torn apart and relationships being ruined.
Let me take it a step further. The prosecution in my case withheld evidence of my innocence for over eighteen years. Then, instead of doing what's right, my prosecutor blamed me for not finding this evidence sooner! He went on to state that his office had an "open-file" policy and asked why I didn't have an affidavit signed from one of my previous attorneys stating they had never seen these documents. Now, all of my prior attorneys have signed affidavits stating they had never seen these withheld documents.
Finally, my appeal is in front of a judge who could bring my nightmare to a close. Hopefully he will make the right ruling. But my life is only one of many lives that have been stolen. Who's next?
Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence until 2012, when the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled there was legally insufficient evidence for his conviction. He remained free for four months, after which the US Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the conviction and ordered him back to prison to resume the sentence. With the support of The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, he is continuing to fight for his freedom. Though he does not have internet access himself, you can email his campaign, make a donation, or sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.