CHEYENNE — A Wyoming district attorney said Wednesday he plans to review an old rape case in response to lawyers' claims that new DNA testing proves the innocence of a man who has served 23 years in prison.
Recent testing at a state lab showed inmate Andrew J. Johnson, 63, was not the source of DNA taken from the victim following a 1989 sexual assault, Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar said in a prepared statement.
The test results favor Johnson but "do not dispose of the case," Homar said. "We are in the process of re-evaluating the case and all the evidence associated with it."
The matter is now an open investigation that may require more testing and examinations, Homar said.
Lawyers for Johnson filed a request for a new trial for Johnson on Tuesday in state district court in Cheyenne. Homar said his office will respond after it completes the review.
Johnson is serving a life sentence at the Wyoming penitentiary in Rawlins.
Aaron J. Lyttle, a Cheyenne lawyer working with the Utah-based Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, filed a report in court dated March 15 from the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation. It concludes, "Andrew Johnson can be excluded as a possible contributor," to DNA taken from the victim.
Lyttle said he started working on Johnson's case in 2009 while he was a student at the University of Wyoming School of Law.
"It's kind of unbelievable," Lyttle said of the test results. "It still feels like something that I've been hoping would happen for all these years, and it's just hard to believe it's finally here."
Marla Kennedy, vice president of the board of directors of the Salt Lake City-based center, said Johnson's case won't be done until there's a final ruling in court that he's innocent.
"The testing 100 percent excludes Andrew as the perpetrator of this crime. He is an innocent man," Kennedy said.
The center handles cases in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Kennedy said its work has led to the exoneration of three other inmates in Utah. She said work on the Johnson case has lasted more than 10 years.
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Johnson originally wrote to the center requesting help after his conviction had been upheld by the Wyoming Supreme Court and he lost a federal appeal.
Kennedy said the center worked to get a new Wyoming law passed in 2008 that allows inmates to get new DNA testing in certain circumstances.
"Science had gotten to a point where we could exclude people from crimes that they were alleged to have committed by DNA," said Wyoming Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne. He was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when the bill passed.
Kennedy credited Homar for working to get new testing for Johnson. She said he realized "two of the most important things in our work are that an innocent man's in prison and the real perpetrator is still walking the streets."
Kennedy said Lyttle and another center attorney spoke to Johnson about the test results on Tuesday afternoon.
"His reaction was like many we have found," she said. "They're not surprised. They knew they were innocent all along."
Court records show Johnson has been tireless in challenging his conviction, even to the point of angering Wyoming judges.
Then-Chief Justice Larry Lehman of the Wyoming Supreme Court denied Johnson's petition for a rehearing on his case in 2002.
"The court advises appellant that, should he insist on filing further frivolous pleadings, the court will be forced to again impose sanctions on him," Lehman wrote to Johnson.
Acting as his own lawyer while incarcerated in a prison in Texas in 2006, Johnson wrote another petition claiming his sentence was illegal because his blood type didn't match evidence taken from the victim.
District Judge Edward Grant dismissed Johnson's petition in March 2006, stating, "Should these unnecessary and often frivolous motions continue, the court may be forced to sanction the petitioner."