Another African-American New Haven man railroaded by corrupt cops is set to walk free after years languishing in prison.
This man’s name is Bobby Johnson. New Haven police charged Johnson, when he was 16, with killing 70-year-old Herbert Fields in Newhallville on Aug. 1, 2006. Johnson is currently serving a 38-year prison sentence at Cheshire Correctional Institution.
New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington filed a motion Wednesday asking the court to vacate the verdict based on the findings of a review of the case by the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. Superior Court Judge Patrick Clifford is scheduled to hear the motion Friday.
Dearington is asking the judge to change the verdict to a nolle, meaning the case can be reopened if new evidence emerges. Ken Rosenthal, an attorney who has been appealing to higher courts to free Johnson, said he plans to have the case dismissed altogether.
Either way, Johnson is expected to become a free man following the court hearing.
“The totality of the information developed to date and presently available, while falling short of proof of actual innocence, has sufficiently undermined the state’s confidence in the judgment of conviction that justice is best served setting that judgment aside and restoring the case to the Superior Court docket,” Dearington wrote in the motion to vacate the Bobby Johnson verdict. The motion was cosigned by Timothy J. Sugrue of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Appellate Bureau. That bureau reviewed the case at Rosenthal’s request.
Johnson follows in the footsteps of Stefon Morant, whom the state agreed to have released for time served (but not to have his charges dropped) this past June after 21 years behind bars; and of Scott Lewis, who was released from prison in February 2014 at the insistence of an outraged federal judge after the state kept him behind bars for 18 years. A crooked detective framed both men for a 1990 double murder; the state denied the men’s appeals for years despite an FBI report tearing apart the evidence in the case and revealing deep connections between the detective and the cocaine trade.
Johnson does not follow in the footsteps of George Gould and Ronald Taylor. They, too, were once released from prison after serious questions arose about police handling of their murder cases. But the state appealed their release and got Gould locked back up. (Taylor died in the interim.)
“I think they did the right thing,” Rosenthal (pictured) said Wednesday afternoon about the prosecutors’ motion to have Bobby Johnson’s verdict vacated. “But they waited too long.”
He called the latest development “justice delayed. Not totally denied. But delayed nine years too long.”
“It’s nine years later in this kid’s life,” Rosenthal said. “All this information [exculpating him] was in the possession of the New Haven police before Bobby Johnson was arrested in 2006. Now in 2015 we have it.”
That evidence, according to habeas corpus motion filed by Rosenthal, included:
• The .45 caliber handgun used to kill Fields was owned by another young man (now dead) in Newhallville, who police believed committed two other murders with the same weapon, one just two weeks before the Fields murder.
• A palm print of a second man believed to be one of the true killers was found in the car where Fields was shot dead.
• A now-retired detective who wrought a confession from Johnson routinely extracted false confessions from arrestees. He also was pocketing money meant for confidential informants in these cases. The cops and state’s attorney’s office were investigating the detective, Clarence WIlloughby, for these actions at the same time Johnson was in the process of being convicted. But they didn’t tell Johnson or his attorney that. Rosenthal argued that Willoughby and a colleague “fabricated and forged police documents in order to steal confidential informant funds” in this case, claiming falsely that a confidential informant had identified Johnson as having been involved in the murder.
That confession from Johnson was the only evidence against him, besides for a witness statement that someone nicknamed “Bo Bo” committed the murder. The state argued that Johnson was “Bo Bo.” In fact, one of those other two men believed to have committed the murder—the man with the plam prints—goes by that nickname.
Johnson, 16 at the time, had no guardian present for that confession, during which police told him he faced the death penalty if he refused to confess falsely promised him he could get probation for the confession, and falsely claiming they had physical evidence tying him tot the murder, according to Rosenthal.
Meanwhile, a co-defendant named Kwame Weels-Jordan — who had a different lawyer, Diane Polan, a respected defense attorney known for winning tough cases — won a not guilty verdict. Polan convinced the jury that Willoughby had wrung a false confession from her client.
Johnson, on the other hand, was represented by a lawyer who later told an appeals judge he considered the case unwinnable because Johnson had confessed. He didn’t investigate the case.