By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO
When Judge William Peters declared Jerome Johnson a free man July 2, the circuit court jurist said little to the man who had just spent 30 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
It was perhaps a fitting show of symbolic silence for a justice system which had forced Johnson to unjustly spend all of his adult life in a jail cell, and until recently seemed indifferent to his plight.
When Johnson emerged onto Lexington St., just outside the Mitchell Courthouse downtown, he seemed inclined toward circumspection as the media swarmed and his family celebrated, preferring not to speak to the press.
His first step outside the courthouse as a free man marked the end of what would seem like an unfathomable ordeal, which began after he was accused and charged with murder based upon the identification of a lone juvenile.
In 1988 Johnson was convicted of participating in the murder of Aaron Taylor, who was shot to death inside the Night Owl Bar in North Baltimore.
The eyewitness placed Johnson at the scene of the crime, and based upon the then juvenile’s testimony, he was convicted of murder.
But, that testimony was called into question after the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project took his case.
During their investigation the man who shot Taylor and was ultimately convicted for the crime signed an affidavit, which swore Johnson was not there when the shooting occurred. The group also managed to track down an alibi for Johnson which was not included as evidence during his trial
Armed with the new evidence, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit opened an investigation into the case, which ultimately cleared Johnson.
Shortly after Johnson was freed, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Johnson’s case was another example of a deeply flawed justice system that her office is working to fix.
“Our prosecutors have been sworn to not only aggressively advocate on behalf of the victims of crime, but must also pursue justice on behalf of those who are wrongly convicted when the appropriate evidence presents itself,” Mosby said.
For his part, Johnson seemed appreciative of the efforts made to clear his name.
“I would like to thank everyone involved in this investigation,” he said.
During the press conference Mosby revealed the Conviction Integrity Unit was currently reviewing roughly 70 cases, a small part of the roughly 900 charges tied to either the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force or body cam footage of police officers staging the discovery of evidence that her office has determined would not hold up in court.
In fact, in September of 2017 Mosby dropped murder charges against another Baltimore man, Lamar Johnson (no relation to Jerome Johnson). He too had been wrongly convicted of murder and exonerated after another collaboration between Mosby’s office and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
Amid all the celebration however, Jerome Johnson had a simple request. When asked what he wanted to do on his first day of freedom, he didn’t hesitate.
“I’d like to have a home cooked meal.”