Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

LaShawn Johnson

Other Federal Exonerations with Misconduct
In June 2006, 29-year-old LaShawn Johnson of Tulare, California was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine in Billings, Montana.

Johnson went to trial in U.S. District Court in Billings in November 2006. The primary witness against him was Heather Schutz, who testified that Johnson supplied her with cocaine and she sold it in Billings and the surrounding area.

Schutz testified that law enforcement agents raided her home on August 26, 2005 and found a pound of cocaine and a gun. Schutz told the jury that the cocaine and gun belonged to Johnson. She admitted that in her first two interviews with federal agents, she said she obtained the cocaine and weapon from someone else and that Johnson was not involved.

Schutz testified that she had pled guilty to conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine.

The prosecutor asked Schutz, “The plea agreement which you entered into allows a potential reduction of your sentence, isn’t that true?”

“Yes,” Schutz said.

She said that there were no promises about any potential sentence reduction that might be available to her in exchange for her testimony.

On November 29, 2006, the jury convicted Johnson of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine as well as possession of cocaine and use of a firearm to facilitate narcotics trafficking. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

His convictions were upheld on appeal by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but his sentence was vacated because the judge had improperly enhanced it twice for the gun conviction. Ultimately, the sentence was reduced to 24 years and five months.

In 2013, Johnson, acting without a lawyer, filed a motion to vacate his conviction claiming that the prosecution had failed to disclose to Johnson’s defense lawyer that Schutz had received favorable treatment on prostitution charges in Nevada and that two other witnesses also received favorable treatment from the prosecution in return for their cooperation.

The prosecution denied that any favorable treatment to Schutz in Nevada had been concealed and also denied that any favorable treatment to the other witnesses had been concealed.

In December 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen ordered the prosecution to respond to the claim that Schutz had testified falsely—with the knowledge of the prosecutor. At the time she testified in Johnson’s trial she said that she had no expectations of a reduced sentence, in fact she had already been sentenced to 140 months—well below the sentencing guideline range of 188 to 235 months—based on the recommendation of the prosecutor.

In fact, Christensen noted, the prosecutor said of Schutz at her sentencing that she “looks really good now…but the proof in the pudding is going to be what she’s going to do from here on out,” an apparent reference to her testimony in Johnson’s then forthcoming trial.

In January 2015, the Department of Justice admitted that the prosecutor in Johnson’s trial failed to disclose impeachment evidence relating to Schutz’ sentence reduction and agreed that Johnson’s motion for a new trial should be granted.

The prosecution noted that Schutz’s credibility was a critical issue in the trial because she had twice told agents that Johnson was not involved before changing her story to say that he was her cocaine supplier.

“Therefore, evidence that she had already received a significant reduction in her sentence was evidence the jury should have heard to allow it to determine whether she was being truthful when she debriefed (to the agents prior to trial) or when testifying at trial,” the prosecution said.

On February 12, 2015, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Johnson and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 2/19/2015
State:Fed-MT
County:
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2005
Convicted:2006
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:35 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:28
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No