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Baltimore man freed, exonerated for 1988 murder

Defense attorney Nancy Forrester embraces her client Jerome Johnson after his release from prison outside Baltimore City Circuit Court. Jerome, spent the last 30 of his 50 years behind bars after a 1988 nurder conviction. He was exonerated Monday. ( Maximilian Franz)

Defense attorney Nancy Forster embraces client Jerome Johnson after his release from prison outside Baltimore City Circuit Court. Johnson spent the last 30 of his 50 years behind bars after a 1988 murder conviction. He was exonerated Monday. (Maximilian Franz)

A Baltimore man who spent 30 years in prison was released Monday afternoon after having his conviction for his alleged role in a 1988 murder vacated.

Jerome Johnson, 50, appeared before a judge where prosecutors joined his attorneys in a petition for writ of actual innocence.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby apologized to Johnson “on behalf of the justice system” Monday following his release.

“The public must know that justice is the only barometer of success,” she said, calling the moment “bittersweet.”

Johnson spoke briefly outside the courthouse and thanked everyone who was involved in the investigation.

“I would like to thank Marilyn Mosby for bringing Conviction Integrity to the State’s Attorney’s Office in Baltimore,” he said. “It really does save lives.”

Johnson said he feels great and is looking forward to a home-cooked meal. He was met by family as well as members of his defense team after his release.

Johnson was in prison for his alleged role in the shooting of Aaron Taylor at a Baltimore night club on July 14, 1988. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime but he was accused of being present with the shooter, according to a news release from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which assisted in the investigation.

Former Maryland Public Defender Nancy Forster eventually began representing Johnson, who had been attempting to challenge his conviction for more than 15 years. She determined Johnson had strong innocence claims and approached the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit in August 2017. Prosecutors later asked the MAIP for assistance.

“Jerome Johnson has proclaimed his innocence for 30 years, but those proclamations fell on deaf ears in the courts until today,” Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, MAIP Legal Director, said in a prepared statement. “We’re thrilled that Nancy Forster and the CIU both recognized the seriousness of his innocence claim and got us involved to help free Mr. Johnson.”

Lauren R. Lipscomb, the division chief for the CUI, said there were “glaring things” discovered in the review of Johnson’s prosecution that would not happen now, including an eyewitness statement not given to the defense, a failure to confirm a witness’s identification of Johnson as a person at the scene and a statement by a co-defendant at his sentencing that Johnson was not present.

The investigation uncovered statements from Johnson’s co-defendants affirming his innocence, alibi witnesses not available at trial and new evidence undercutting an eyewitness who linked Johnson to the crime. The police did not confirm the witness’s identification of Johnson later and Mosby said it is now her office’s belief that the witness was mistaken.

Alvin Hill, who was convicted of the shooting, signed an affidavit confirming that Johnson was not present, Mosby said Monday. The office is still reviewing the case to determine where mistakes were made in an effort to avoid making them in future prosecutions.

“Our prosecutors have been sworn to not only aggressively advocate on behalf of the victims of crime but (they) must also pursue justice on behalf of those who are wrongly convicted when the appropriate evidence presents itself,” she said.

Shawn Armbrust, MAIP’s Executive Director, said she’s happy Johnson is free but it should not have taken this long.

“Today represents the first time in 30 years that the justice system has worked for Jerome Johnson,” she said.

Armbrust said it is the second time in less than 10 months the MAIP has stood with Mosby’s office to announce a vacated conviction.

“This is extraordinary,” she said, praising the office for doing their jobs and investigating Johnson’s innocence claim.

Johnson is the third Baltimore-area man freed through the work of various Innocence Project groups since 2016. Malcolm Jabbar Bryant was released after DNA evidence exonerated him in a 1998 murder. Lamar Johnson was released last year after it was proven witnesses misidentified him as the perpetrator of a 2004 murder.

The CUI and MAIP received a grant last year to fund a full-time investigator in the prosecutor’s office and a dedicated law clerk. Lipscomb said there are currently more than 70 cases being reviewed.

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