Financial future uncertain for Wyoming man freed by DNA evidence

2013-08-11T23:45:00Z 2013-08-12T13:38:04Z Financial future uncertain for Wyoming man freed by DNA evidenceBy MEGAN CASSIDY Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
August 11, 2013 11:45 pm  • 

CASPER — An exonerated man has a lot of errands to run.

Andrew Johnson, of Cheyenne, was recently set free after serving nearly 24 years in prison for a 1989 rape he didn't commit. He has no money, no job or current job skills, and carries the additional burden of back child support payments and deteriorating health. Johnson suffers from high blood pressure, arthritis in both knees and perhaps glaucoma.

He also doesn't own a car despite the constant need to visit the unemployment office, his doctor and his attorney’s office. So he walks.

In April, Johnson became the first person in the state to be released based on DNA evidence following a conviction. However, he now faces an unprecedented battle to regain what was taken from him.

Wyoming, like many states, does not have a law that provides for compensation to exonerated former prisoners. Johnson’s release narrowly preceded a Legislative committee-sponsored bill that would guarantee reimbursement for convicts who are later proven not guilty by DNA evidence.

Unless Johnson can make the case for a civil suit or is granted special legislation, he could end up with nothing.

***

In the spring of 1989, Andrew Johnson had a well-paying job at a Cheyenne construction company and the promise of marriage to an attractive young college student named Annette.

He was living in picket fence-lined house with a backyard and driving a Ford Granada. He was eager to adopt Annette’s daughter, Angela, whom he had come to view as his own.

But his plans were destroyed and belongings stripped after June 10, 1989, when an acquaintance accused Johnson of raping her after a night of bar-hopping. The state designated Johnson a habitual offender because of previous burglary charges, and upon his conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison.

The state of Wyoming released Johnson from prison on bond last spring largely because of aid from the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center and a 2008 Wyoming statute that allows inmates to petition for post-conviction DNA testing. Test results proved it was not Johnson’s semen found in the victim’s rape kit, but that of her then-fiancé.

State prosecutors announced on July 19 they would not seek a retrial. On Wednesday, Laramie County Judge Thomas Campbell signed an order of actual innocence and exoneration.

Johnson said the best thing about freedom is going wherever he wants, whenever he wants. But his elation is eclipsed by a crushing need for money. The stress is constant. Johnson is currently dependent on the financial mercy of his family.

“They are giving me my freedom, but they basically put me back out into this world as a homeless person,” he said.

“When I go back into society, they tell me, ‘Make it the best way you can,’” Johnson continued. “You’ve got to have a car. You can get to buses, but it still boils down to money. It’s what I’m trying to get the state to understand. I need emergency relief now.”

***

Johnson was at his sister's house six days after the state dropped his charges. He is a lean, subtly athletic man at 63. On this day he was outfitted for his daily suburban hike. His sartorial choices were utilitarian yet neat: a fitted white T-shirt, pressed khaki shorts, unscuffed Nike Air Jordans and a thin, nylon backpack for legal documents. His smart phone is always attached to his hip with a sleek black belt clip, “In case my lawyer calls.”

Johnson toys with the phone often during his walks. However, he has not yet mastered many of its features, such as saved contacts. Without the luxury of years of easing into upgrades, Johnson instead memorizes partial numbers to know who is calling.

“That’s you, right?” he asks a reporter, referring to a phone number. He got it right. Because of an out-of-state area code, it’s an easy one, he said. Those starting with 307 -- Wyoming's area code -- are more difficult.

The unemployment office is just across the street from his sister’s house, which is where he currently resides. The eye doctor is about a block away and his attorney Aaron Lyttle’s office is a little more than a mile from home.

Johnson's lack of Internet prowess hinders many of his best intentions. For example, Johnson was told at the Wyoming Workforce Services office to fill out a form online to begin the job search process. His relatives equipped him with a laptop, but Johnson struggles with the touchpad mouse and the Internet in general.

“The Internet is wild,” he said while navigating the Web with the traditional mouse with which he's comfortable.

Daniell and Andre Kramer, Johnson’s niece and nephew, shoulder some of the monetary burden and help to educate his stunted technological aptitude. They showed him how to use his debit card, set him up with a bank account and schooled him on various cell phone ringtones.

“The first week he got out, he was standing in my kitchen and the birds were chirping outside,” Daniell recalled. “He was like, ‘Who is calling me now?’”

Johnson is blessed with a large, devoted family that that has become his benefactor, driver and landlord, as well as a source of guilt.

“My family is helping me out as much as they can, but it’s tight on them, too,” he said.

Johnson is the oldest of six children and lives with his 50-year-old sister Sharon Kramer, who has multiple sclerosis and relies on disability benefits herself. Kramer also does not have a car. Johnson recently qualified for $250 a month in food stamps, allowing him to help with groceries.

Johnson said he and his sister have no real issues living together, but he longs for a space of his own.

Car ownership is his current No. 1 concern, though. Johnson’s niece and nephew sometimes spot him walking down one of Cheyenne’s busier roads and call to reprimand him. They insist that if he would just wait for them to get off work, they would drive him to where he needed to be.

“I try not to depend on them so much,” he said. “I feel like a handicap.”

***

For now, Johnson’s new house and car will have to wait. Maybe for a very long time.

His is a landmark case in Wyoming, and no one is quite sure how or even if Johnson will be compensated for his more than two decades of incarceration.

Wyoming legislators at a recent Joint Judiciary Interim Committee meeting agreed to sponsor a bill that would guarantee up to $300,000 in compensation for those who are incarcerated, then proven innocent based on DNA evidence. Unfortunately for Johnson, legal experts are doubtful such legislation would benefit him. Rocky Mountain Innocence Center Legal Director Jensie Anderson said any bill passed in the 2014 legislative session would not apply retroactively.

According to officials from the Innocence Project, someone who is wrongfully imprisoned and exonerated must prove official misconduct to pursue federal civil litigation. In a case such as Johnson’s, where his conviction was largely based on the victim’s identification, it is doubtful this would be applicable.

“If there was no official misconduct in his case, in the absence of a state statute, he gets nothing,” said Rebecca Brown, director of state policy reform for the Innocence Project. Johnson is currently speaking with attorneys about other options.

A third possibility is a private bill, which is a proposal for a law that only applies to a single person or corporation. A private bill must be passed by the Wyoming Legislature, according to Fasse. Johnson’s attorneys are considering advocating for it in his case.

Twenty-nine states currently offer some form of compensation for those who were wrongfully convicted. Several of those states additionally offer social benefits, Brown said. Vermont, for instance, provides access to the state employee medical plan for up to 10 years. Virginia offers tuition to the community college system and North Carolina provides job skills training. Brown lauded Texas for its “very expansive” set of set of social services.

The proposed $300,000 cap in the Wyoming legislation is relatively low in comparison to other states' laws. If the proposal were applied to Johnson, it would amount to less than $13,000 per year for each year he was incarcerated.

Past attempts at a Wyoming compensation law have failed. State Joint Judiciary Committee Chairman Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, said the committee has looked at higher amounts in the past along with talk about paying for college or vocational schooling.

“None of those ideas actually made it to a filed bill,” he said in an email to the Star-Tribune.

***

Johnson visited a counselor at Peak Wellness Center in Cheyenne a few weeks ago, where he was given a clean bill of mental health. Johnson said the counselor originally thought he would be addicted to drugs or have serious mental issues after his long incarceration.

“She said, ‘Well, you’re in pretty good shape,” he recalled.

It’s hard to tell if Johnson is always friendly or if he’s still riding the freedom high. He waves at and strikes up conversation with everyone on his walks: the couple feeding their dog outside, the employees at Taco John’s, the other patients at the optometrist’s office.

Fasse said Johnson’s counterparts in other states have not been so lucky, especially in the states lacking compensation laws.

“We had a client who got out and became homeless,” she said. “He had no family to go to.”

Johnson’s ex-wife, Annette Johnson, lives nearby as well. He stops by her house on his way back from running errands to grab some water and say hello to his grandson. He and Annette married and then divorced 16 years later — both while he was in prison.

The two remain on good terms, but he said they will not get back together. Marriage is not on the horizon until he stabilizes himself.

“I get up in the morning, I walk outside, I breath air … it’s not a bad little neighborhood,” he said. “I think about life. I look up, watch the clouds, then look back down and I’m in the same situation.”

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