By Vanessa Potkin, Innocence Project Staff Attorney
(Sabine Parish, Louisiana) — This morning I sat with Rickey Johnson as a Louisiana judge ended the 26-year nightmare that has been Rickey’s adult life. He was 26 years old when he was arrested for a rape he didn’t commit. Today, he is 52.
The victim identified Rickey in a terribly misleading photo lineup – the photo of Rickey was eight years old and there were only two other pictures to choose from. Several months later, a jury convicted him of the crime and sentenced him to life in prison. He spent the next 9,136 days at Louisiana’s massive state prison at Angola.
Rickey was engulfed by family as he walked into the free world this morning– several of his relatives had come to welcome him home, and others will be reunited with him in the next few days. Watching Rickey taste freedom for the first time in more than a quarter of a century is mind-boggling. The joy was palpable, but it was impossible to comprehend that he spent nearly his entire adult life at Angola for a crime he didn’t commit.
And while this is Rickey’s day to celebrate, my mind turned to two other Innocence Project clients who will go to sleep again tonight at Angola. Archie Williams has been fighting for 13 years to simply have DNA evidence tested in his case. The tests can prove his guilt or innocence beyond any doubt, but East Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau has fought Archie’s appeal at every turn. The same is true for Kenneth Reed, convicted in East Baton Rouge and unable – so far – to have DNA testing conducted in his case.
Tomorrow Rickey will join other Louisiana exonerees and relatives of Archie Williams in calling for statewide access to DNA testing when it can prove innocence. An innocent man’s quarter-century behind bars will be in vain if we are not able to learn from his nightmare and correct the problems in our criminal justice system that convict the innocent and keep them behind bars without fair, fast appeals. It’s only right that Rickey’s case should lead to testing for Archie Williams, Kenneth Reed and others seeking to prove the truth.