Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Lumont Johnson

Other Winnebago County Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Winnebago_County.jpg
Shortly before 3 a.m. on April 14, 2002, Estella Dowthard called 911 in Rockford, Illinois to report shots fired at her home. She then discovered that one of the bullets pierced a window and killed her sleeping eight-year-old grandson, DeMarcus Hanson.

Police suspected the target of the shooting was Dowthard’s son, Alex Dowthard, who lived in the home. Prior to the shooting of DeMarcus Hanson, Alex Dowthard had been wounded in a gang-related shooting. He told police that three opposing gang members were responsible: 19-year-old Tyjuan Anderson, 21-year-old Anthony Ross and 29-year-old Lumont Johnson. But they were not charged with that earlier shooting after police determined that Dowthard had been shot by a member of his own street gang.

Alex Dowthard said he was not at home when DeMarcus was killed and he told police he did not know who fired the shots at his home. Dowthard, however, was arrested for violating his parole after admitting he had a gun.

Police sought Anderson, Ross and Johnson for questioning. All three went to the police station voluntarily and all denied any involvement in the shooting that killed DeMarcus. They said they had been out with another friend, Javarus Williams, on the night DeMarcus was shot. Anderson and Johnson said they returned to Anderson’s home well before 3 a.m. Williams, who was interviewed separately and corroborated their account, said he and Ross were at their homes prior to 3 a.m.

On April 24, 2002—10 days after DeMarcus was shot—the leader of Alex Dowthard’s gang told police that Ross and Johnson were responsible for the boy’s shooting and that the information came from Lataurean Brown.

Police questioned Brown, who said he had no idea who shot DeMarcus. Brown said that on the night DeMarcus was killed, he was with Dowthard and that Dowthard had fired a gun at a blue SUV. Afterward, Brown said, they drove to Dowthard’s home where Dowthard stashed his gun and they went to another residence to visit Dowthard’s cousin.

Two weeks later, after extensive questioning, Brown changed his story and said that he and Dowthard were in fact at Dowthard’s home when the shots went off. Brown identified Anderson, Johnson and Ross as the men in the vehicle from which the shots were fired.

On May 29, 2002, Alex Dowthard changed his statement as well and implicated Anderson, Johnson and Ross in the shooting.

In late June and early July, Anderson, Johnson and Ross were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Anderson and Johnson went to trial in October 2002 in Winnebago County Circuit Court after Ross’s case was severed. Dowthard testified that on the night of April 13—several hours before DeMarcus was shot—he argued with Anderson and Johnson. Dowthard told the jury that he shot at both of them and then went home. Hours later, he said, the men came by the house and fired four shots, one of which struck DeMarcus.

Brown testified that he was with Dowthard that night and also implicated Anderson, Ross and Johnson in the shooting.

On November 6, 2002, the jury convicted Anderson and Johnson of first-degree murder. They were each sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Ross went to trial in February 2004. Dowthard again testified and identified Ross as the man who fired the shots at the home. Brown testified again as well and identified Ross as the gunman.

Another witness, Sonya White, testified that Ross came to her home shortly after the shooting and admitted he had shot someone and had thrown the gun into a lake. She denied that she was testifying falsely in the hope that she would get favorable treatment on a criminal charge pending against her.

Ross testified in his own defense and denied any involvement in the murder. Ross’s ex-girlfriend told the jury that Ross came home at about 2:45 a.m.—before the shots were fired at the Dowthard home.

On February 23, 2004, the jury convicted Ross of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In 2011, lawyers for Anderson, Johnson and Ross filed a post-conviction motion for a new trial based on tape recordings of conversations between Alex Dowthard and relatives and friends in May 2002. At the time, Dowthard was in an Illinois prison on a parole violation and the conversations were recorded routinely by prison authorities. The tapes had been turned over to the defense attorneys for the three men at the 11th hour prior to the trial of Anderson and Johnson. No one representing the defendants had ever listened to the tapes in their entirety, in part because they were difficult to understand and in part because a motion to postpone the trial to transcribe the tapes had been denied by the trial judge. The tapes were not used in Ross’s later trial either, and had been forgotten.

While the case was on appeal, a defense attorney discovered the recordings in a box of materials that had been misplaced.

The conversations, totaling about 40 hours, predated Alex Dowthard’s May 31, 2002, written statement to police implicating the defendants. Defense attorneys argued that the tapes contradicted Dowthard’s trial testimony and showed that he knew nothing about the shooting of DeMarcus and that he was fed information from friends and relatives about Lataurean Brown’s statement to police so his statement would match Brown’s statement.

At a hearing on the motion in November 2012, former Rockford Police Detective Doug Palmer admitted that he had physically abused Ross and Anderson during his interrogation of them. “I slapped Anthony Ross. I slapped Tyjuan Anderson a couple of times.”

Palmer also admitted that he threatened witnesses and fabricated statements in other cases and that at one point, he handcuffed a mother and left her crying baby on the floor—in an attempt to get a statement.

The defense presented evidence at the hearing that detectives had received statements from witnesses that two other men—Kefentse Taylor and Casel Montgomery—were responsible for the shot that killed DeMarcus. The witnesses told police that Taylor and Montgomery had admitted being the gunmen and that Taylor was murdered because he had gotten away with killing DeMarcus. That information had not been turned over to the defense attorneys.

In March 2013, Winnebago County Circuit Judge Joseph McGraw granted the motion for a new trial and vacated the convictions of Anderson, Johnson and Ross. The judge granted the motion on a single basis—that the tapes had been turned over too late.

The judge ruled that the case essentially boiled down to the testimony of Alex Dowthard, who, the evidence showed, had told many versions of what happened on the night of the shooting and had denied any knowledge of the facts more than once. The judge wrote that saying Dowthard’s “cooperation and willingness ‘evolved’ would be charitable.”

Dowthard had reasons, including potential criminal exposure, not to cooperate at the outset; and he also had reasons, including accommodations received and benefits conferred, to explain his cooperation at various points, the judge said.

In the end, the judge said that Dowthard’s biases and motives for testifying truthfully or untruthfully were “many and various.”

The defense attorneys lacked the “one thing” they needed to confront successfully Dowthard—the tapes. McGraw did not conclude that they were deliberately withheld from the defense, but the tapes did not become available until shortly before trial—an interval too brief to meaningfully listen to them and determine their significance.

As a result, the jury was denied an “essential element” in evaluating Dowthard’s credibility and whether he “was telling the truth of why he said what he said and when he said it.” McGraw said the outcome of the trial might have been different had the jury heard the tapes.

The prosecution appealed the decision. While the appeal was pending, lawyers for Anderson, Johnson and Ross filed federal civil rights lawsuits against the police. The lawsuit filed on behalf of Anderson alleged that the officers in the case threatened Lataurean Brown until he changed his story about not seeing any shooting. Brown’s eventual statement was “manufactured” by the officers and signed by Brown, the lawsuit said.

Dowthard’s statement implicating the defendants occurred after Dowthard repeatedly denied seeing the shooting, the lawsuit said. “Refusing to accept the truth, the (police) threatened Mr. Dowthard that if he did not change his story, they would keep him imprisoned on a parole hold and bring additional criminal charges against him. The (police) also used physical violence against Dowthard,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said that the police failed to disclose to the defense that Brown’s cousin told the police that immediately after the shooting, she spoke to Brown and Dowthard and both told her they did not see who fired the shots.

The lawsuit claimed that after Carmen Hearns, an acquaintance of the defendants, told police that she did not know anything about the shooting, officers threatened to take Ms. Hearns’ children to the Department of Children and Family Services and re-activate an old misdemeanor charge as a felony. The officers told Hearns that if she did not “give them something,” they would arrest her. When she still refused cooperate, police took her to jail. After two days in jail, Hearns signed a fabricated statement that implicated Anderson, Ross and Johnson in the shooting.

The lawsuit also alleged that police threatened and harassed Toni Gulley, Ross’s girlfriend, in an effort to destroy Ross’s alibi that he came home prior to the shooting. The lawsuit said police told Gulley that she must have been mistaken about the time that Ross came home, and that if she did not “cooperate,” they would call DCFS and report her for child neglect. The lawsuit said the police created false reports saying that Gulley could have been wrong about the time that Ross came home on the night of the shooting.

The lawsuit additionally claimed the police coerced and physically abused another witness when he threatened to change his story and expose the police for their misconduct. The officers told him to testify consistent with those lies, and hit him and threatened to arrest his mother if he did not, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said that one police officer told other officers to “to make a liar out of anyone that pointed the finger at the real criminals.” After receiving “highly detailed and credible information” implicating two other men, the police gave “at least one witness a statement that the officers had already written out for the witness to sign that falsely recanted the information he had provided about the real criminals,” the lawsuit said.

In November 2014, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the decision granting the defendants a new trial.

In November 2015, Anderson, Johnson and Ross went to trial a second time, electing to be tried together by a judge without a jury. During the retrial, Sonya White, who testified in the 2004 trial of Ross, recanted her previous trial testimony. She said she lied when she said Ross came to her house after the murder and told her that the killing was the result of a dispute with a rival gang member and that he had thrown the murder weapon into a lake. On November 6, Judge McGraw acquitted the defendants and they were released.

The lawsuits were still pending in November 2015.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 11/24/2015
State:Illinois
County:Winnebago
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2002
Convicted:2002
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:50 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No