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Jerome Johnson

Other Baltimore City CIU Exonerations
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Shortly after 1 a.m. on July 14, 1988, 22-year-old Aaron Taylor was fatally shot inside the Nite Owl Bar in Baltimore, Maryland.

The owner of the bar said Taylor ran into the bar and liquor store, grabbed a patron, and held him as a shield. A man approached with a pistol and ordered the patron to duck. When the patron managed to wrest free and fall to the floor, the gunman fired several times and Taylor fell dead.

When police arrived, one customer said he saw the shooting and recognized the gunman as an area resident. The bar owner said she saw the gunman and Taylor arguing, and then the gunman drew his gun. She said she called 911 and while she was on the phone, the gunman shot at Taylor once and then fired several more shots.

Subsequently, the man who was held as a shield and the bar owner identified the gunman as Alvin Hill.

The following day, detectives visited Taylor’s family home. They spoke to family members who said that they had heard that a person named “Lamont” was in the bar at the time of the shooting. They also said that Taylor’s 15-year-old cousin, L.S., had been present at the shooting.

On July 19—five days after the shooting—L.S. was interviewed at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office and gave a different account. She said that when she arrived at the Nite Owl, Taylor was outside arguing with five men. She said she saw 20-year-old Jerome Lamont Johnson hand a gun to Alvin Hill, who pointed the gun at Taylor and pulled the trigger, but it misfired. At that point, Taylor ran into the bar, chased by the gunman and the four other men. She said she ran into the bar and saw Taylor trying to shield himself. Hill then shot Taylor after one of the men—Reginald Dorsey—said, “Shoot him in the head.”

L.S. identified Thomas Carroll as one of the other men, but did not identify the fifth man.

On July 28, L.S. testified before a grand jury, which ultimately returned indictments charging Hill, Johnson, Dorsey, and Carroll with first-degree murder and use of a weapon in commission of a felony.

On March 8, 1989, the four men went to trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court. No physical evidence linked any of the men to the crime. L.S. was the prosecution’s key witness, although her testimony was widely inconsistent both with her grand jury testimony and within her trial testimony itself.

She said variously that she was inside the bar when she saw Hill fire twice, misfiring both times, and also that she was outside the bar when that occurred. She also said she was walking in when that happened, and that she was outside the doorway when that occurred.

She said that when she was outside, she saw Johnson hand a gun to Hill after the first gun misfired. Hill took the gun Johnson gave him and chased Taylor inside the Nite Owl.

She said at one point that when the man Taylor was trying to use as a shield broke free, he ran out of the bar. She said she followed him and heard four shots as she was crossing the street.

She admitted that at one point, she had said she saw the first gun as it was misfiring, and that another point, she said she didn’t see the gun misfiring because it happened behind her.

L.S. testified at the trial that she was in the bar and so was her friend T.L. However, during her statement to prosecutors on July 19, 1988, she said she was in the bar with her mother’s boyfriend and that T.L. was hiding outside.

L.S. told the grand jury that Johnson handed Hill the first gun that misfired and that Hill pulled out the second gun. At trial, however, she told the jury that when Hill’s gun misfired, Johnson handed him a second gun.

When she was pressed during cross-examination to explain why her testimony was different before the grand jury, L.S. said the grand jury transcript was erroneously recorded.

Both the bar owner and the patron Taylor tried to use to shield himself identified Hill as the gunman. Neither could recall L.S. or anyone else in the bar at the time.

Another witness, identified as K.A., told police on the night of the shooting that he was standing with Johnson at the corner of Lucille Avenue and Reisterstown Road—about two blocks away. However, at trial, K.A. testified that by the time the shots were fired, Johnson had crossed the four lanes of Reisterstown and was standing with the rest of the suspects outside of the Nite Owl.

On March 14, 1989, the jury convicted Hill, Johnson, and Dorsey of first-degree murder and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony. Carroll was acquitted. Hill, Johnson, and Dorsey were sentenced to life in prison.

For more than two decades, Johnson unsuccessfully fought to overturn his conviction. The case, shaky from the outset, slowly began to crumble, but not significantly enough to gain Johnson relief.

After his initial appeal was denied, Johnson filed a post-conviction petition in 1992. It was denied in 1993. He filed another petition, which was denied. In 1997, a witness provided a sworn statement that he was with Johnson at the corner of Lucille Avenue and Reisterstown Road when they heard the shots fired, and that they were still there when a police officer approached to ask if they had heard the gunfire. As a result, Johnson filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied for failure to comply with court rules. A revised habeas petition was filed and denied in 1999.

In May 2000, Hill provided an affidavit saying that he pulled a gun on Taylor and that Johnson was not present at the time of the murder. In January 2001, Johnson filed a motion to re-open his post-conviction petition, but it was dismissed. He filed another motion to re-open in July 2002, but that too was dismissed.

In June 2007, Johnson filed a third motion to re-open the post-conviction petition. That was denied. He tried to re-open it again in February 2010, but that was also denied.

In April 2011, Johnson filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence, but it was denied. He tried again in July 2012 and following arguments in January 2013, the writ was denied. He appealed and the denial was affirmed.

At that point, Johnson reached out to Nancy Forster, one of the top appellate lawyers in Maryland. Forster, the eighth lawyer to represent Johnson over the years, began to review the case and became convinced of Johnson’s innocence.

In 2015, as she re-investigated the case, Forster made a breakthrough when she convinced L.S.’s friend, T.L., to consent to an interview. T.L., whom L.S. had variously described as being both inside and outside the bar, had never been interviewed by police, prosecutors, or defense attorneys.

T.L. said that she and L.S. arrived at the bar just as Taylor was using the patron as a human shield. T.L. said that she was so close that when Hill pulled a gun and the patron fell to the floor, the patron landed on her foot. She said Hill then shot Taylor, and she and L.S. fled. More shots were fired as they ran. T.L. said no gun misfired and there was no handoff of a gun. Moreover, she said,no one yelled, “Shoot him in the head.”

T.L.’s statement was critical because it mirrored L.S.’s very first statement to police immediately after the shooting. That statement, however, had never been disclosed by police. In the statement, Officer Kenneth Jones reported that L.S. said that on the night of the shooting, she was at home with T.L, Taylor, and Quinton—a family friend. At some point, Taylor left on his bike to go to the Nite Owl. L.S. said she, T.L., and Quinton decided to go there as well to buy snacks.

In the bar, L.S. said she saw the gunman enter and pull a handgun from the waistband of his pants. She said Taylor held a man as a shield, but the man broke free and fell to the floor. At that point, L.S. said she ran outside and then heard five gunshots. L.S. told Officer Jones that there were three men with the gunman. She said she recognized the gunman from the area. She said that she knew the names of two of the other three, but she did not want to name them.

That statement not only was corroborated by T.L., but also significantly differed from L.S.’s testimonies at the grand jury and at trial.

Ultimately, in August 2017, Forster presented her evidence—including yet another witness who said she saw Johnson at the corner of Lucille Avenue and Reisterstown Road—to the Conviction Integrity Program at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office.

After interviewing dozens of witnesses, prosecutors contacted the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which joined with Forster in representing Johnson.

During a joint interview with the prosecution and the defense, T.L., who had lost contact with L.S. more than 20 years earlier, said that Johnson was not present when Hill shot Taylor.

In March 2018, the prosecution interviewed Dorsey, who had been convicted with Hill and Johnson, in prison. He admitted that he was present and was adamant that Johnson was not there.

In May 2018, the prosecution interviewed L.S. During this interview, she gave the same account she gave in her very first statement—the statement that Officer Jones had taken and never disclosed. She said there was only one gun and that Hill was with only three men.

Carroll, who was acquitted at the trial, also was interviewed. He admitted that he was present at the shooting, but had “beat the murder” at trial. He said Johnson was not present and had no involvement in the crime.

On July 2, 2018, the prosecution and the defense filed a joint petition for a writ of actual innocence requesting that Johnson’s convictions be vacated. The motion was granted, and the charges were dismissed. Johnson—after spending nearly 30 years in prison—was released.

After Johnson’s release, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby declared, “Today, we stand in unison in pursuit of justice to announce the exoneration of Mr. Jerome Johnson, a man who has served more than 29 years of his life in prison for a murder he did not commit.”

“Mr. Johnson was not present at this murder,” Mosby said. She addressed Johnson directly, saying “It is my hope that now, that you are set free, that you are able to return home, you will heal and adjust to this rightly-deserved freedom and live life to its fullest potential.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/4/2018
State:Maryland
County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1988
Convicted:1989
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No