Judge Vacates Murder Conviction, New Haven Man Freed After Serving 9 Years
NEW HAVEN >> Bobby Johnson made the five-second walk out of Superior Court Friday with the help of the same folks who helped him endure nine years in prison.
The steps leading out to Church Street aren’t steep or hard to walk on, but Johnson’s mother, Angela, couldn’t help but assist her son one more time, holding his hand as they approached the awaiting media gathering. The rest of his family, the folks who helped Johnson through nearly a decade in prison, walked next to him, erupting in applause when he stepped outside.
Everyone present wanted to hear the thoughts of a man whose murder conviction had been vacated by the state after Superior Court Judge Patrick Clifford entered a dismissal of the charges earlier in the morning.
Johnson stood in awe, lifting his eyes toward the sky like a mesmerized child.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” Johnson said. “It feels excellent to be out.”
Johnson, 25, was 16 when he was charged and then convicted for the murder of Herbert Fields. Johnson’s attorney, Kenneth Rosenthal, worked with the Connecticut Innocence Project to secure the decision Friday. Rosenthal asserted in court documents that New Haven police detectives coerced the then-teenage Johnson into confessing to shooting and killing Fields as he sat in his car on West Ivy Street. Robbery was the alleged motive.
Johnson said among the first things on his to-do list is to spend time with his family, some of whom were toddlers the last time he saw them.
“You’ve seen how crazy these people are,” Johnson said smiling. “My family is everything. It’s hard not have family around. … You had a lot of guys in there who don’t have families, and they really give up. It’s worth fighting. That support system alone can get you a long way.”
Johnson said he was angry about the conviction early on but eventually his anger subsided as his case progressed.
“I hope my situation opens up the doors for a lot of people,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of innocent people there and I hope that we can make everything happen for them, too.”
Rosenthal said that he, along with Innocence Project Executive Director Darcy McGraw, filed the habeas corpus petition for Johnson in 2011.
“This is an extraordinary case,” Rosenthal said. He said the chief state’s attorney’s office previously had argued that the state’s remedy for actual innocence was not available if somebody pleaded guilty, which “would mean that no matter what evidence you had of innocence, you have to stay in jail.”
“But the chief state’s attorney’s office has said that that’s not right,” Rosenthal said.
New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington confirmed Wednesday that he would ask Clifford to vacate the conviction. Dearington nolled the charges, but added that his office will continue to investigate Fields’ death.
In the motion, Dearington and Assistant State’s Attorney Timothy Sugrue of the Appellate Bureau wrote they were acting “in the interest of justice and fair play,” adding that, “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.”
Johnson did not address the court during his brief appearance Friday morning. However, Susan Troxler, Fields’ daughter, prepared a statement and said she had to deal with anger, pain and confusion over her father’s death.
While acknowledging she may never get closure, she offered her best wishes for Johnson.
“I’m very happy for Bobby,” Troxler said.
Angela Johnson said her family always believed in her son’s innocence, sticking by him despite all the accusations.
“He’s my best friend,” Angela Johnson said.
“We used to do everything together. For him to go, and me knowing my son, knowing he didn’t do it, it was very hard.”
Many of the family members wore custom shirts on Friday with the words “justice for,” followed by their connection to Johnson, such as “bro” and “cousin” and “uncle.”
But it was his mother’s shirt that caught Johnson’s eye.
“I like her shirt,” Johnson said. “‘Justice for my son.’ I like that.”
Reach Esteban L. Hernandez at 203-680-9901.