We Stand With Andrew: Wyoming won’t provide restitution to Andrew Johnson after his exoneration, so his friends are stepping in

By on December 13, 2017

 

The crowdfunding campaign for Andrew Johnson’s restitution can be found at www.gofundme.com/WeStandWithAndrew

While Andrew Johnson’s exoneration after two decades for a rape he didn’t commit may have granted him freedom from a life behind bars, things haven’t been particularly easy for the Wyoming resident.

Four years after being released, Johnson – the first person to be exonerated in Wyoming by DNA and the subject of a Planet cover story earlier this year – is still struggling to make ends meet.

It isn’t exactly simple to jump back into your old life after being wrongfully locked away in prison for 24 years like Johnson was. That’s why in many states there are laws in place to provide restitution who are wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. Wyoming is not one of them.

Wyoming is one of the 18 states that does not provide restitution to the wrongfully incarcerated, and while there have been legislative proposals attempting to resolve the issue, thus far none have become law.

The most recent attempt to pass restitution legislation occurred in 2014 and would have provided up to $500,000 to people who were exonerated through DNA evidence, but the proposal did not make it past the budget session.

What that means for Johnson is that he’s left to try and resurrect a life post-prison without compensation for wrongful imprisonment. He was sent back into the free world with nothing to his name, but these days he’s got some friends who are ready to help him out.

Laramie residents Chris and Rebecca Merrill recently stepped in to help raise funds for Johnson. The Merrills met Johnson shortly after he was released from prison and have been trying to help him out financially, Chris Merrill told the Casper Star Tribune earlier this month.

Chris and Rebecca told the Star Tribune that as citizens of Wyoming, they owe Johnson a debt. They started repayment by purchasing a used Toyota for Johnson to help out.

“We really believe his society, and that’s us, … owes him a debt,” Chris Merrill said in the article.

But the used Toyota – while a good start – isn’t going to cut it. Johnson was in prison for over two decades and lost any semblance of a normal life during that time. He needs financial support that the state of Wyoming clearly isn’t going to provide, so the Merrill’s started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds instead.

“My wife and son and I met Andrew Johnson in August of 2013 … Andrew is from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and he was wrongfully imprisoned for 24 years, for a crime he did not commit. Four years after his exoneration, Andrew is 67 years old and still struggling to afford the most basic things in life. At an age when most folks are looking at retirement, Andrew is still looking at an empty bank account,” the Merrill’s wrote on the fundraising page.

The fundraiser is not only to help Johnson pay his bills, Chris said, but an attempt to make restitution to Johnson on behalf of all Wyoming citizens, who need to step up when the government fails to do the right thing.

“The injustices Andrew experienced are numerous, but here are just a few of the most basic:

  1. Andrew had to endure the pain of prison life for nearly two and a half decades for a crime he didn’t commit.  
  2. His personal freedom, this most basic human right, was wrongfully stolen from him.
  3. He was taken from his family and friends.
  4. He was robbed of a career.
  5. He was wrongfully accused, convicted, and marked by our society as a rapist.
  6. He and his children and family had to endure all of these injustices and all of their ripple effects for a generation,” the fundraiser page states.

The case that put Johnson behind bars in 1989 is harrowing. Johnson, who is African American, was accused and convicted of raping a 24-year-old white woman named Laurie Slagle. The conviction relied heavily on Slagle’s identification of Johnson as her assailant, and Johnson was sentenced to life in prison.

It wasn’t until 2008 that prisoners in Wyoming were even allowed to petition for post-conviction DNA testing, and when Johnson did, the rape kit proved to contain Slagle’s then-fiance’s semen, not Johnson’s.

Johnson was granted a re-trial but prosecutors opted to drop the charges instead. He was officially exonerated in 2013, and a judge officially proclaimed Johnson innocent.

E after his release, though, 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.

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 fundraiser has been live for about two weeks, and the Merrills had raised about $14,000 of the $100,000 goal at  the time this story went to press. PJH

The fundraiser can be found at www.gofundme.com/westandwithandrew.

 

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