FEATURE: BLACK BARS & WHITE CEILINGS

By on August 30, 2017

Andrew Johnson, despite his innocence and exoneration, struggles to find justice as a free man.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The gavel struck with all the force of a life-ending sentence: guilty on all charges. Andrew Johnson was shocked to his bones when the verdict came back. This was not what was supposed to happen. He was innocent. The jury had to know he was innocent. They had only deliberated 20 minutes. It wasn’t possible they had sentenced him to life in prison after just 20 minutes.

Johnson, an African-American man, was accused and convicted of raping a 24-year-old white woman, Laurie Slagle, in Cheyenne, WY in 1989. The conviction almost entirely relied upon Slagle’s identification of Johnson as her assailant.

The now 67-year-old was exonerated in 2013 after spending 24 years in prison. DNA testing proved he had lost nearly a quarter of his life paying for a crime he did not commit.

Johnson was the first person in the state of Wyoming to be exonerated using DNA evidence.

“I certainly believe Mr. Johnson’s race played into his conviction,” Johnson’s former attorney, Jensie Anderson, told the Planet. She followed up with the fact that rape convictions in the black community, especially when it is a black man raping a white woman, not only have some of the highest exoneration rates in the nation, but that members of the black community also face harsher penalties than their white counterparts for the same crimes.

Statistics reported by the Wyoming Department of Corrections showed that conviction rates of black people in Wyoming are nearly six times higher than conviction rates of white people. However, a report put out last year by the National Registry of Exonerations, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States, found that while African Americans make up 13 percent of the American population, they make up 47 percent of all exonerees.

The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, an organization that works to exculpate wrongfully convicted persons in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming, has helped exonerate six wrongfully imprisoned people since its inception in 2000, of which four have been people of color.

Statistically, Anderson pointed out that the RMIC numbers are in line with national averages.

To jail a mockingbird

Johnson told the Casper Star Tribune that he didn’t have a real first meal upon release.

“We went to–what was the name of that place?” he puzzled.

“Starbucks,” offered his lead attorney, Elizabeth Fasse.

“I had a cookie about this big,” Johnson said, making his hands into an “O” the size of his head. “And a coffee …it was pretty powerful.”

Johnson’s original attorney said, obviously many things had changed over nearly a quarter of a century. Not knowing about Starbucks was just a jumping block back into reality for Johnson.

When Johnson was first convicted there were only 55 Starbucks in the world, now there are over 24,000. But missing out on a cultural phenomenon was the least of Johnson’s losses.

After 16 years of waiting for a day she feared would never come, Johnson’s wife divorced him while he was still serving his sentence. He also missed seeing his daughter grow up. Mr. Johnson now has a grandson that he met for the first time when he was released from prison.

It is great injustices like these the RMIC works so hard to rectify. The innocence center’s Complaint and Demand for Jury Trial, submitted to the United States District Court on Johnson’s behalf, specifically highlighted that it is possible Johnson never would have been convicted in the first place if the court had been less negligent. The report indicates that without the testimony of Slagle, Johnson’s conviction would have been impossible; Slagle named Johnson as her rapist after the prompting and encouragement of law enforcement officers. Her testimony was the only concrete evidence the court used to convict Johnson.

On top of pressuring the witness, the RMIC report continued that first responder police officers took potentially exonerating photographs of the crime scene that were later lost or possibly intentionally destroyed.

Also of note, Anderson–although she was unable to officially confirm her recollection–recalled that it was an entirely white jury that convicted Johnson after a 20-minute deliberation.

Johnson maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration, believing that, ultimately, the truth would win out, which it eventually did. Many years later, DNA evidence later revealed that it was, in fact, Slagle’s boyfriend who had committed the crime. Once the DNA evidence exonerated Johnson, the Laramie District Attorney’s office dropped charges against him, and Johnson was officially released.

However, even after his release, prosecuting District Attorney Scott Homar continued to insist that Johnson was guilty, and that it was his prior criminal history that led to the length of his original sentence. Many states exclude people with criminal records that pre-date the exonerated offense from receiving compensation from the state, but Johnson said, “Once you paid society back, under the law, you are supposed to be another citizen of this country.”

Compensating for a life robbed

Regardless of Johnson’s criminal history, he lost a great deal during his quarter of a century stint in prison.

Johnson had never used the internet or a cell phone during his imprisonment, leaving him with few skills that would enable him to cope in the outside world. At 67 years old, his top earning years are far behind him. On top of that, Wyoming, as well as 20 other states, has no laws mandating any form of financial compensation for those wrongfully convicted.

Johnson and a team of lawyers sued the state of Wyoming, attempting to pass legislation that would provide compensation to those wrongfully convicted.

What were 24 years of Johnson’s life worth? After years of litigation, the answer was handed down to him. Twenty four years of his life spent in prison for a crime he did not commit was worth nothing. Not a dime. The state did not owe Andrew Johnson a penny for the time he spent behind bars. The Wyoming legislative bill that set out to financially compensate those wrongfully convicted of crimes (dubbed “Andrew’s Bill”) was dropped by the House after it was passed by the Senate the month prior.

Before the bill was struck down, Johnson’s payout was expected to be $50,000 a year with a $500,000 maximum, reflecting statutes in several other states that have legally enacted the provision. If Johnson had been granted the repayment, the state would have valued every year of Johnson’s wrongful imprisonment at just over $20,000. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming, the average felon in a state-run penitentiary costs the state of Wyoming between $35,500 and $53,750 per annum.

In April of this year, Johnson and his lawyers filed a civil suit against the City of Cheyenne for abuse of Johnson’s civil rights through wrongful conviction, as well as mismanagement of evidence. United States District Judge Scott Skavdhal dismissed the suit on August 3 leaving Johnson still without a dime in compensation.

Johnson’s former legal counsel was perturbed by the legislature’s decision.

“Unfortunately, the state of Wyoming has fought any kind of effort to repay [Johnson] for the time he was wrongfully incarcerated,” Anderson said. “I can’t say to you [the legislative dismissal] had any basis in race, but I can tell you that during the initial conviction, implicitly or explicitly, race certainly played into the reasons he was initially incarcerated. It was a very typical case, in that it was a black man accused of raping a white woman, and that is where we see the biggest disparity in the justice system.”

Anderson highlighted that the rate of conviction is much higher in cases where a person of color is accused of raping a person who is white. “We also see greater sentences for those people, and that was the story in Andrew’s case,” she concluded.

The NAACP is all too familiar with statistics like these. Preventing human beings from becoming statistics in the first place is the challenge.

Rosemary Lytle, the NAACP representative for Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, insisted that Johnson’s story is a classic case of why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important. “This is the mattering,” she declared. “Our society is a capitalist one, and almost everything has a cost. The injustice he suffered at the hands of Wyoming is a price they should be ready to pay. It’s the most egregious kind of racial assault. What it shows is the life of this black man does not matter to the state of Wyoming.”

Lytle believes that miscarriage of justice comes with a much higher cost than just financial reimbursement. Her passion rose in her voice as she asserted, “Once you’ve taken away my youth, my ability to provide for my family, my chance at the American dream, you’ve not only hurt me, the impact of that is generational. It’s not only that family that is affected. Things like this, they affect communities. There’s a price that needs to be paid, and it’s unfortunate that the legislature cannot make it possible for him to be compensated.”

The Dirty Numbers

The numbers speak for themselves. In areas with measurable African American populations in Wyoming, arrest rates are higher, followed by higher rates of conviction as well. Data supplied by the U.S. Census shows that while African Americans make up less than 1 percent of Wyoming’s total population, they make up 5.8 percent of those incarcerated. The same holds true for Native Americans and Hispanics. Alarmingly, both groups are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. People who self-identify as white comprise 87 percent of Wyoming’s overall population but make up only 78 percent of Wyoming’s prison population.

Michelle Alexander, an award winning author, wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander asserts prisons are the newest innovation of racial oppression, reflected in the vastly disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color. “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid,” she writes. “In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”

The point of Alexander’s book is that people of color are placed in a system where it looks like people who behave well succeed, and those who do not behave well go to prison, but she insists that simply is not true. “African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct,” she continued.

Jensie Anderson believes there are several reasons for this disparity other than just overt racism. She cited the Race and Wrongful Conviction report again. The report reads, “Judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict. The major cause of this huge racial disparity appears to be the high danger of mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims in violent crimes with black assailants.”

Anderson has advocated for potentially allowing expert witnesses to stand at trial to explain the likelihood of misidentification, especially when the victim and accused are different races, and how often that leads to wrongful conviction.

It’s really hard for people to recognize and identify people who are a different race from them, she said. “It’s not always that people are intending to be racist,” Anderson said, “but what we also know is that cross-racial identifications are some of the most flawed identifications in the criminal justice system.”

Institutional Apathy

Lytle, of the NAACP, thinks there is an institutionalized bias against people of color in the criminal justice system.

When a community has small numbers of minorities in a community, it causes feelings of isolation within those minority groups and often results in disproportionate attention to those groups by law enforcement, Lytle said. Cheyenne is a perfect example of such a community as it has only about 2700 people of color. Those smaller numbers of minorities, she believes, especially in Western states like Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana, disincentivizes authority figures in the criminal justice system, such as prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement officers, from investing in diversity training.

She said the issues were largely rooted in a lack of understanding of difference.

“When there aren’t very many people of color in your state, it’s easy to say ‘why bother?’ and forego any kind of sensitivity training.” She asserted that without exposure to people of color or sensitivity training, the targeting or disproportionate incarceration of minorities grows.

Locally, minorities may be more fortunate.

The Jackson Police Department undergoes various forms of training as they try to holistically educate their officers.

Jackson Police Officer Lt. Roger Schultz said, “The Jackson Police Department does regular training on a variety of topics. Those trainings have included differences in culture and race, and while not specifically, ‘Racial Sensitivity Training,’ they teach our officers how to handle difficult situations and circumstances.” According to Schultz, Jackson’s incarceration statistics reflect its population.

However, Jackson’s practices may be unique in Wyoming.

Mark Curran of the Wyoming Department of Corrections wasn’t quite as sure what special training his wardens received. “I’m sure there probably is,” he said. “In our professional academy a portion of that is dedicated to racial sensitivity. It deals with different ethnic cultures, or, perhaps, religious groups, religious cultures within prison. Certainly, that’s addressed and instructive of our training. As far as continued education or training, I’m not sure, but it’s likely.”

When it comes down to it, Schultz believes there are several reasons people of color have higher representation in prisons. “Generally,” Schultz said, “I believe that race, poverty, and crime are closely linked. Any time you have a minority population where poverty is systemic, you are going to have crime and disproportionate numbers of incarcerations.”


The rising cost of incarceration

The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other nation in the world. The United States’ incarceration rate is 737 citizens per every 100,000, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s total prison population. China, the country with the second highest incarceration rate, imprisons 118 citizens per 100,000, a small fraction of the global prison population.

Incarceration rates that high come with a big price tag, currently costing taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion every year. That is up from an estimated $80 billion in 1980, according to a 2014 report from the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Even accounting for inflation in that time period, that is a 400 percent increase in the cost of incarceration.

Although there have been consistent decreases in reported crime, which as reported by Pew Charitable Trusts is down 24 percent from 2009 to 2014, Wyoming is still seeing the cost of incarceration balloon. As of 2016, the National Institute of Corrections reported that the Wyoming Department of Corrections had a budget of $306 million, up from $243 million in 2008, a 25 percent increase.

But Curran explained that Wyoming has some of the lowest rates of recidivism–the rate at which inmates are rearrested within three years of their initial release–in the United States. According to Curran, the Cowboy state has a recidivism rate of just 23.8 percent compared to the 44.7 percent recidivism rate of federal penitentiaries.

Curran stated that it is Wyoming’s proactive stance on rehabilitation that makes Wyoming prisons stand out. He said the Wyoming DOC takes special care to help convicts reintegrate into society, keeping Wyoming’s recidivism rates so low. “Ninety-two percent of individuals that go into prison end up coming back out,” he said, “and we want to make sure we are giving those individuals the tools they need to succeed.” Curran listed mental health assistance, job training, and counseling as some of the many methods the state employees use to ensure the smallest number of individuals possible become repeat offenders.

While Curran thinks what happened to Andrew Johnson is tragic, he maintains that the Wyoming justice system does a lot right, attempting to help convicts transition back into normal, functioning lives.

“Sometimes we’ll have to remind people that we don’t determine someone’s prison sentence. We don’t decide when they come to us, or when they leave,” he said. “Nor do we decide someone’s guilt or innocence, so if the court convicts someone for a certain period of time, that person is in the system and remains with us until they are released or paroled. When they are in the system, we do our best to work with them to see that they are provided for while they are in prison, and that they are given the tools they need to succeed.”

However, aside from exoneration there is little success to see in Johnson’s case.

Opportunities within the prison that would have prepared Johnson for a life outside of those walls seemed to have escaped him, perhaps because no one expected him to have a life outside of prison given his life sentence. Regardless, instead of success, the innocent man simply had more suffering. Not only did Johnson leave prison penniless, he left in debt for owed child support that he could not pay while serving time. Add that to the states’ refusal to compensate Johnson for robbing him and his family of decades of precious time and it amounts to what seems like a cruel joke.

Sadly, the innocent man has to rely on donations to a fund in his name set up at a credit union in Cheyenne (RMIC has the details). On behalf of the NAACP, Lytle recently reached out to Johnson’s lawyers to offer whatever assistance the 108-year-old institution might be able to offer the wrongfully convicted man.

One would hope an innocent man, wrongfully imprisoned for 24 years could catch some kind of break. Following the news that he had been denied compensation from the state Johnson said, “If I died today, I couldn’t afford to be buried.” PJH

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