|In August 1981, two teenagers, Elizabeth and William, were attacked by a white male at gunpoint behind a church on Clapboard Ridge Road in Danbury, Connecticut.
The attacker, who wore a bandana to cover part of his face, beat both victims repeatedly, handcuffing William, and hitting both with his gun. Elizabeth saw her attacker’s face after the bandana came off during a struggle; William did not see the attacker. Both victims lost consciousness during the assault.
The crime was discovered after an anonymous caller to state police in Brewster, New York, which was about 11 miles east of Danbury, said that he had just killed two people near a church on Clapboard Ridge Road in Danbury.
Police determined that the handcuffs were the same brand used by several federal agencies.
Elizabeth was shown numerous photographs over several months in an attempt to identify the attacker. Three photographs of Lawrence J. Miller Jr., an employee at a federal correctional facility, were included in the sets shown to her and she failed to identify Miller as her assailant.
It wasn’t until April 1982, after being shown a newer photograph of Miller, that she identified him as the attacker. Two months later, she had a chance encounter with Miller at a local department store and identified him as her attacker at that point as well. William was unable to identify his attacker.
Prior to Miller’s trial, a man named Daniel Johnston approached Miller and his wife and said that he knew Miller wasn’t the real criminal. Miller reported this to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department and an officer then questioned Johnston. During interrogation, Johnston repeated insisted that Miller was innocent. Johnston stated at one point that he would not deny that he was the attacker, but would not admit it.
When Johnston was asked where he was at the time of the crime, he said he was in a hospital in Chesapeake, Virginia. Although the police determined that alibi false—Johnston was not in the hospital at that time—Danbury police did not investigate him any further. Johnston’s statement—which was tape-recorded—and the false alibi were not disclosed to Miller’s defense lawyers for prior to Miller’s trial.
After the sheriff’s police informed the prosecutor that Johnson should be considered a prime suspect, the prosecutor asked Danbury police whether Elizabeth had viewed Johnston’s photograph. A Danbury officer said Elizabeth had been shown two different photographic arrays containing Johnston’s photograph and she had not identified him. That statement was a mistake—Elizabeth had not been shown Johnston’s photograph.
Miller went to trial in November 1983. Elizabeth testified about her prior identifications and identified him in court. Miller testified that he was at his sister’s home, a statement supported by his wife, sister, sister’s friend and mother. On November 21, 1983, a jury convicted Miller of two counts of felony assault and he was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
In 1986, Johnston was convicted of murdering a New York woman and dumping her body about a mile from Clapboard Ridge Road, where Elizabeth and William were attacked.
Miller’s attorney, Richard Emanuel, who met Miller in 1983 when he handled Miller’s appeal of his convictions, pursued Johnston diligently over the years, writing letter after letter and making visits to Johnston in prison.
In 1995, Johnston finally confessed to Emanuel that he, not Miller, was the attacker. In 1996, during a hearing on a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Johnston testified in great detail about the attack. He admitted that he had sexually assaulted Elizabeth, gave an accurate description of the type of gun that was used and where he obtained it and also revealed that he had stolen the handcuffs from a residence whose occupant was a military veteran.
Evidence showed that the gun had been stolen from an apartment complex on Norfolk, Virginia where Johnston had worked as building manager. He admitted he took the gun when the gun owner was not at home.
In 1996, Miller’s conviction was overturned and he was granted a new trial. He was released on bond in April 1996. The prosecution appealed the ruling and in August 1997, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the decision. The prosecution dismissed the charges in October 1997.
In December 1997, Miller filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Danbury and the Danbury Police Department. The lawsuit was settled for $1,050,000 in 2000.
In 2015, the state of Connecticut was ordered to pay $4,050,000 in compensation to Miller.
– Stephanie Denzel and Maurice Possley