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Bobby Johnson

Other Connecticut Cases
On August 1, 2006, 70-year-old Herbert Fields was fatally shot as he sat in his car in New Haven, Connecticut, in an apparent robbery.

Four witnesses told police that two black youths ran from the scene after the shooting. The witnesses said that prior to the shooting, the two youths approached the car, one on each side. One youth leaned into the driver’s side and shot Fields. Both youths took items from the car and fled.

One cartridge casing was found on the street and a slug was found inside the car. Latent prints were lifted from several locations on the car, including a palm print on the outside of the front passenger door. Police found a bank deposit receipt showing that Fields had just deposited a $2,500 check and taken out $1,900 in cash. The only money recovered was $47 found in Field’s pocket.

On August 12, 2006, two men reported to police that two men shot at them while they were in a park not far from where Fields was murdered. They identified the shooter as Richard “Bo-Bo” Benson. On August 15, police arrested William Outlaw, who admitted that he—not Benson—was the gunman. Outlaw also told police that one of the youths involved in the Fields murder was 16-year-old Bobby Johnson.

On August 15, 2006, New Haven police detective Michael Quinn picked up Johnson for questioning. Johnson said that he was at a pharmacy near the shooting on the day of the murder and that he followed the sound of sirens to the scene. He denied any involvement and was released. The following day, Detective Quinn brought in 14-year-old Kwame Wells-Jordan, a friend of Johnson’s, for questioning. After he denied involvement, he was released as well.

On September 3, 2006, Quinn brought Detective Clarence Willoughby into the case and together they brought Johnson back to the police station for questioning a second time. Willoughby, who claimed he had a 100 percent success rate in solving homicides, falsely told Johnson—who had an IQ of 69 and was barely able to read or write—that there was physical evidence tying him to the Fields murder. Johnson denied involvement in the murder. Willoughby told Johnson that he would face the death penalty if convicted and promised him probation if he confessed.

Johnson, who was interrogated outside the presence of his parents, finally broke. The detectives said he admitted that he was involved in the shooting with his 16-year-old cousin, Michael Holmes, who provided the gun used in the murder. Despite the statement, Johnson was allowed to go home.

Two days later, on September 5, Detectives Quinn and Willoughby questioned Holmes. He denied any involvement, but after he was threatened with a murder charge he implicated Johnson and Johnson’s friend, 14-year-old Kwame Wells-Jordan. Holmes said that Johnson and Wells-Jordan came up to Fields’ car, and Johnson shot Fields while Wells-Jordan was standing by the passenger door.

On September 6, the detectives picked up Wells-Jordan and interrogated him with his aunt present. Police told Wells-Jordan that his fingerprints were found on Fields’ car, but he refused to confess. He was released.

While the investigation of the Fields murder continued, detective Willoughby was also investigating three other murders in New Haven—two that occurred before the killing of Fields and one that occurred afterwards. Samuel Mallory was fatally shot in June 2006 and Domingo Rodriguez was shot to death in July 2006. The third victim was chief suspect in the first two murders: 16-year-old Larry Mabery, who was shot to death on August 30, 2006, reportedly in retaliation for the Rodriguez murder. Two handguns were found on Mabery’s body.

On September 15, 2006—12 days after Johnson confessed and said the gun used to kill Fields came from his cousin—ballistics tests on one of the guns found on Mabery’s body showed it was the weapon used to kill Fields as well as Rodriguez and Mallory.

Quinn and Willoughby arrested Johnson and told him that his initial statement was a lie and that he had to “correct” his September 3 statement or else his “deal” for probation would be cancelled. In a revised statement, Johnson now said that he, Wells-Jordan and Holmes borrowed the gun used to kill Fields from Mabery.

On October 5, 2006, a crime lab analyst matched the palm print on the passenger door of Fields’ car to Richard “Bo-Bo” Benson—a close friend of Mabery.

The detectives did not investigate Mabery or Benson in connection with the Fields murder, despite the forensic evidence linking both of them to the crime and the physical descriptions of the youths that shot and robbed Fields that more closely resembled Mabery and Benson than Johnson and Wells-Jordan.

On November 9, the detectives questioned Wells-Jordan again, also in the presence of his aunt. After repeated denials and amidst a highly confrontational interrogation, Wells-Jordan—on the advice of his aunt—relented and told Quinn and Willoughby what they wanted to hear: that he was involved with Johnson in the murder of Fields.

And so, while the detectives had inculpatory statements from Johnson, Wells-Jordan and Holmes, the statements were highly contradictory.

At that same time, Detective Willoughby prepared and submitted documents to obtain funds to pay a confidential informant whom Willoughby said provided the information that led to the arrest of Johnson and Wells-Jordan. The documents were false; Willoughby pocketed the funds himself.

In July 2007, Johnson pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to 38 years in prison. His appointed attorney conducted no investigation, even though he had received the forensic reports linking the gun found on Mabery to Fields’ murder and the palm print on Fields’ car to Benson.

Wells-Jordan went to trial in April 2008 in New Haven County Superior Court. Johnson was called as a prosecution witness but instead of implicating Wells-Jordan, he recanted his confession and said he and Wells-Jordan were not involved in the murder. After his aunt testified to the coercive tactics employed by Willoughby during the interrogation of Wells-Jordan, and Wells-Jordan’s attorney showed that the palm print did not match Wells-Jordan, the jury acquitted him.

Detective Willoughby did not testify because he was facing larceny and forgery charges for submitting false claims for funds to pay confidential informants and pocketing the money. He was later acquitted and resigned from the department. The City of New Haven later settled lawsuits brought by defendants who accused Willoughby of coercive interrogations and making false statements.

In 2010, Johnson filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus and New Haven attorney Ken Rosenthal was appointed to represent him. Rosenthal and the Connecticut Innocence Project ultimately obtained a hearing on the evidence linking the murder to Mabery and to Benson, who had spent all but a few months in prison in the nine years since Fields was murdered. The petition was denied in 2013.

In 2015, Rosenthal asked the New Haven State’s Attorney’s Office to re-examine the police and court records in Johnson’s case as well as the other murders linked to Mabery. In the meantime, after three years of effort, he finally obtained the police records in the other murder cases Mabery was linked to—which had not been disclosed to Johnson’s defense attorney at the time Johnson pled guilty. Those police reports revealed that the other murders were committed in a similar fashion to the murder of Fields—each victim was shot while he sat in a car.

In addition, in July 2015, Rosenthal obtained police records showing that Detective Quinn—like Detective Willoughby—also submitted a false request for confidential informant funds in the Fields murder investigation. The records, which were never disclosed to Johnson’s defense, seriously undercut Quinn’s credibility.

On September 2, 2015, New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington filed a motion to vacate Johnson’s conviction. The motion said the prosecution was acting “in the interest of justice and fair play” and that the “totality of the information developed to date, and presently available, while falling short of proof of actual innocence, has sufficiently undermined the state’s confidence in the judgment of conviction.”

On September 4, 2015, the motion was granted, the charge against Johnson was dismissed and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/6/2015
State:Connecticut
County:New Haven
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:38 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:16
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No