News 01.14.08

After 26 Years, DNA Testing Exonerates Rickie Johnson in Sabine Parish, Louisiana, Rape; Johnson Will be Released Today and Speak at a Press Conference in Baton Rouge Tuesday


'Rickie Johnson’s long nightmare will be in vain if we don’t make sure other people have access to DNA testing that can prove their innocence,' says Innocence Project

(MANY, LOUISIANA; January 14, 2008) – Rickie Johnson, who has been incarcerated for nearly 26 years for a rape he did not commit, will be released today based on DNA results proving his innocence, according to the Innocence Project, which represents him.

Johnson, who was 26 when he was arrested for the crime and is now 52, will be released in Many, Louisiana, this morning. Tuesday, Johnson will speak at a press conference in Baton Rouge with the family of Archie Williams, who has been fighting for 13 years for DNA testing that could prove his innocence.

“Rickie Johnson lost more than a quarter of a century, nearly his entire adult life, to a wrongful conviction. He had three young children when he was arrested, and a fourth was born shortly after he was incarcerated; all of those children are now adults, and he has grandchildren he’s never met,” said Vanessa Potkin, the Innocence Project Staff Attorney representing Johnson. “Rickie Johnson’s long nightmare will be in vain if we don’t learn from it and make sure other people in Louisiana have access to DNA testing that can prove their innocence.” In Baton Rouge tomorrow, Johnson will join other people exonerated by DNA testing in Louisiana to call for statewide access to DNA testing and policies to ensure that evidence is properly preserved so DNA testing can be conducted.

Johnson was arrested in 1982 for the rape of a woman in Many in July 1982. The victim in the crime said a man broke into her home at 1 a.m. and stayed for several hours, during which he raped her. She later identified Johnson in a photo array which included an eight-year-old photo of Johnson and just two other photos. Johnson was convicted of the rape in January 1983 and sentenced to life without parole. He has been at Louisiana’s Angola Farm Prison ever since.

In June 2007, the Innocence Project (which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law) asked Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett to agree to DNA testing on a vaginal swab collected after the rape. Within days, Burkett agreed, and testing was conducted. The DNA profile did not match Johnson, and late last week state officials entered the DNA profile in a database of convicted offenders – yielding a match to John Carnell McNeal, who was already in prison for an identical rape in the same apartment complex just nine months after the rape for which Johnson was wrongfully convicted. After McNeal was convicted of the April 1983 rape, he was sentenced to life without parole and has been serving time at Angola Farm with Johnson; the two men were acquaintances for the last two decades.

“If police and prosecutors had not focused on Rickie Johnson so early in their investigation – and if a proper eyewitness identification procedure had been used instead of a deeply flawed photo lineup – the real perpetrator might have been brought to justice sooner and might not have been free to rape another woman in the same apartment complex,” Potkin said. “Anyone who doubts that our criminal justice system is stronger when we take steps to prevent wrongful convictions should take a close look at Rickie Johnson’s case.”

At the suggestion of

Calvin Willis

, an Innocence Project client who served more than 21 years at Angola before DNA testing exonerated him in 2003, Johnson wrote to the Innocence Project seeking assistance. He wrote that he wanted help getting “the DNA that will give me my life back” and said, “I am not the man that did this rape … all I want is to go home.” In 2005 Johnson’s daughter, Lakeisha Butts, wrote to the Innocence Project: “My father Rickie Johnson was wrongfully charged and sentenced to life … 21 years have now passed and my dad has been stripped from his children and family on a charge he is not guilty of, and the real perpetrator of this heinous act was granted the advantage of walking free and having the opportunity to be surrounded by his family … We, the children of Rickie Johnson, need your assistance in exonerating our father.”

The Innocence Project took the case in 2006 and quickly located the evidence. Once Burkett agreed to DNA testing, a state judge granted a motion to test the evidence at Reliagene, a private lab based in New Orleans. Basic DNA testing yielded only a partial profile, and more sophisticated testing (known as Minifiler DNA testing) provided a full profile. In late December, Johnson’s DNA profile was compared to the profile on the vaginal swab, and he was excluded; last week, state officials matched the profile to McNeal, whose DNA profile was in the state’s database of convicted offenders.

The Innocence Project today commended Burkett for quickly agreeing to conduct DNA testing in Johnson’s case. While Louisiana passed a state law allowing access to post-conviction DNA testing in 2001, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau has fought DNA testing for years in two Innocence Project cases. In Archie Williams’ case, Moreau has refused to conduct DNA testing for 13 years; a state appeals court finally ordered DNA testing in the case in August, but Moreau has appealed to the state Supreme Court. Just last week, the state Supreme Court rejected Moreau’s effort to continue blocking DNA testing for Kenneth Reed, who initially requested testing two years ago. In the two unrelated cases, Williams and Reed were convicted of raping women who did not know their attacker – making them the most straight-forward types of cases for DNA testing to prove guilt or innocence.

“More than anything else, Rickie Johnson owes his freedom to the fact that he is in Sabine Parish, with a cooperative District Attorney who recognizes his legal and moral obligation to conduct DNA testing. If he had been in East Baton Rouge, Rickie Johnson would likely still be at Angola, still fighting for the DNA testing that would prove his innocence,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck, who will join Johnson at tomorrow’s press conference in Baton Rouge.

Johnson is the 10th person exonerated through DNA testing in Louisiana and the 211th nationwide, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

Read more on the other nine people exonerated through DNA in Louisiana

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