Wednesday, September 13, 2017

24 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit

During the 2017 legislative session, the people of Highlands Presbyterian Church sent a petition to Republican and Democratic leaders. They asked legislators to compensate citizens who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned as do 32 other states and the District of Columbia. Specifically, they asked that Wyoming compensate Andrew Johnson for the nearly 24 years he spent in prison for a crime the state knows he didn’t commit.

Not a single legislator from either party bothered to reply.

You may not remember Andrew and the grave injustices visited upon him by both the criminal justice system and the criminal malpractice of the Wyoming legislature.

In 1989, he was convicted of a rape. There was no DNA testing then, only false accusations. Before the verdict, he said, “I thought the trial was going in my favor. I knew there was no evidence I had committed a crime.” Andrew was wrong. It took the jury 20 minutes to find him guilty.

Years later, DNA tests provided proof. He was innocent. Andrew was released from prison with little more than the shirt on his back. He had no job, no home, his mother died while he was incarcerated. With the injustices of the legal system corrected, Andrew then faced the injustices of the legislative system.

In 2014, a bill compensating Andrew for those lost years passed both houses of the legislature, in different forms. The bill landed in a conference committee, a well-known playground for mischief. Former Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar and his accomplice, Cheyenne legislator Bob Nicholas, argued disingenuously that DNA proved nothing. Andrew was, they said, still guilty. And although Homar didn’t have enough evidence to retry Andrew, he used his political influence to further ruin this man’s life.

The late John Schiffer, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee was the bill’s chief proponent. After the bill died in the conference committee, he said, “This is something we need to do in this state, it just wasn’t meant to be this year.” However, more than three years later, legislators seem satisfied with doing nothing ever.

So, Andrew remains uncompensated for those lost two-and-a-half decades. His attorneys threw a “Hail-Mary” pass and filed a federal court lawsuit. That court has now rejected Andrew’s plea for someone, anyone to recognize the enormity of the injustice he has experienced.

He finds himself hemmed in between two Latin terms. One is often employed by courts when they deny justice, i.e. res judicata, meaning “the thing has been decided.” It means that if you look long enough through a bunch of dusty, dead, old law books, you’ll find a reason to deny justice.

The other Latin term explains Wyoming lawmakers. Una sals victis nullam sperare salutem, is intended to tell people like Andrew, “The only hope of the vanquished is not to have any hope at all.”

A year after Nicholas and Homar killed the compensation bill, an Albany County legislator, Charles Pelkey, then a freshman Democrat in the State House, briefly took up the cause. He introduced but then withdrew a bill to provide compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Since then, nothing.

Criminal prosecutions are undertaken in the name of the people. When the conviction turns out to have been wrong, that wrong is likewise perpetrated in their name as well. The people of Wyoming through their elected representatives are guilty of a grave injustice. As the “Innocence Project” explains, “With no money, housing, transportation, health services or insurance, and a criminal record that is rarely cleared despite innocence, the punishment lingers long after innocence has been proven. States have a responsibility to restore the lives of the wrongfully convicted to the best of their abilities.”

Legislators will say the state just doesn’t have the money. Well, the state had plenty enough money to pay the cost of wrongfully convicting Andrew. They had the money to pay for his prison cell for 24 years. Justice and common decency dictate they find the money to make right this terrible wrong.

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