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Charges dropped against Wyo. man after 23 years

Jul 21, 2013 - Associated Press

CHEYENNE (AP) -- Andrew J. Johnson stopped at the court clerk's office in Cheyenne on Friday and picked up an order signed by a district judge dismissing criminal charges against him. He said he intends to have it framed. He paid for it with 23 years of his life.

Prosecutors in Cheyenne dropped criminal charges Friday against Johnson, 63. A judge this spring had ordered Johnson released from prison after new testing of DNA evidence in the 1989 rape case excluded him as the source.

But Johnson, who had served 23 years of a life sentence on the conviction, had faced the prospect of a new trial in October until Friday's announcement.

"It feels good that I got this straightened out at this time through the DNA," Johnson said in an interview in the lobby of a Cheyenne hotel. Tourists in town for the annual Frontier Days rodeo milled around him as he described how he had refused to quit challenging his conviction.

Johnson is the first person to be released under a recent state law that allows people to challenge old convictions using DNA evidence.

Johnson, who worked as a law clerk in prison, has been steadfast in maintaining his innocence. He drew repeated rebukes from judges for filing "frivolous" appeals on his own behalf as his conviction was upheld by both the Wyoming Supreme Court and the federal court system.

Johnson said that when he was first sent to prison, he told his mother he expected it would take him two years to get his conviction overturned. His mother died this spring, before Johnson was released. But he said she lived long enough to see that DNA testing had excluded him as the source of evidence in the case.

"My mother, that is a strong woman," Johnson said. "She held on until she knew that I was free. She was a very religious lady, and I think she told the good Lord, 'I'm ready to go now.'"

Scott Homar, Laramie County district attorney, said Friday that he was dropping the charges after concluding that his office didn't have the evidence to convict Johnson.

Homar stated that, in the years since the 1989 rape, physical evidence in the case was destroyed and the lead detective in the case died. "This is not an exoneration," he said, claiming that there was other evidence that pointed to Johnson.

However, Homar said he concluded his office would no longer be able to overcome its burden of proof if it went to trial against Johnson. "We are therefore ethically obligated to dismiss the charges against Mr. Johnson at this time," he said.

Johnson credited Homar with not opposing his DNA testing request. But Johnson said he's bitter that samples in his case weren't tested 24 years ago. "They were being cheap, and didn't want to spend the money," he said of the state.

Angela Johnson, Johnson's daughter, lives in Aurora, Colo. She said her 7-year-old son was thrilled to get the news that his grandfather is a free man.

"It's just such a relief to have this nightmare finally over," Angela Johnson said Friday.

Lawyers with the Utah-based Rocky Mountain Innocence Center have pushed for more than a decade to free Johnson. The center succeeded in changing Wyoming law in 2008 to allow DNA testing, even years after a trial, with an eye toward pressing Johnson's innocence claims.

Jensie L. Anderson, legal director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, said Friday that the center is thrilled about Homar's decision to drop the charges. "The DNA we believe showed that Andrew was innocent, and this was the right thing to do," she said.

"The problem was, early on we recognized that there was DNA evidence that could be tested, but there was no way to get back into court," Anderson said.

Johnson said he intends to bring a civil lawsuit against the state. Drawing on his experience as a law clerk in prison, he said he hopes to find employment with a law firm.

Both Anderson and lawyer Elizabeth Fasse, who has represented Johnson on behalf of the Innocence Center, said freeing an innocent man gives them a feeling of satisfaction.

Fasse said, "It feels amazing, there's really nothing more rewarding to do as an attorney than to get an innocent person out of prison. It's a wonderful day, mostly for Andrew, who has fought for his innocence for 24 years."

The Wyoming Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee on Thursday recommended approval of a bill in the legislative session that starts early next year that would allow compensation for inmates cleared by DNA evidence. It would pay them $75 a day, up to a cap of $300,000. It would take special legislative action to compensate Johnson because the pending bill wouldn't apply retroactively.

While Homar stated his decision not to pursue the case didn't amount to an exoneration, Fasse said that's precisely what it means under the law. She said the state should compensate him for his lost years.

"It would be a true shame if the first person exonerated under the statute wasn't allowed to receive compensation from the state," Fasse said.

Johnson said he believes the state should take emergency action to compensate him. He said he doesn't have money for a vehicle, insurance or other necessities. "If I was to walk out of here and die, my people couldn't bury me," he said.

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