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Roderick Johnson

Other Berks County, Pennsylvania exonerations
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On December 8, 1996, 22-year-old Damon Banks and his 19-year-old cousin, Gregory Banks, were fatally shot in a gravel driveway near a silt basin in Exeter Township just east of Reading, Pennsylvania. At about the same time that police found the bodies, employees at a nearby restaurant reported that 20-year-old Roderick Johnson came in seeking help for a gunshot wound.

A few days later, Johnson told police that the shooting had been committed by 19-year-old Shawnfatee Bridges. Johnson said that on December 7, 1996, the day before the shooting, two men in green hoodies had robbed Madelyn Perez at gunpoint while she was alone in Bridges’s apartment. Perez, who was Bridges’s girlfriend, had said the robbers were looking for drugs and money. Finding neither, they took a camcorder and a Sony PlayStation and fled.

After Perez told Bridges what had happened, Bridges concluded that the robbers were the Banks cousins because he had seen them wearing green hoodies earlier on the day of the robbery. Later that evening, Bridges met with Johnson and 25-year-old Richard Morales and told them what had happened. Bridges grabbed a shotgun and said that he wanted to kill the Banks cousins. He also showed Johnson and Morales a nine-millimeter pistol.

On December 8, Johnson, Banks and Morales went to a K-Mart where Bridges purchased shotgun shells. They drove a minivan to the home where the Banks cousins lived. According to Johnson, Bridges told them he was interested in recruiting them to oversee his drug-dealing business while he was out of town. He asked them to accompany him to the location where he stashed his drugs.

Johnson said he drove the minivan to the gravel road and remained inside while Bridges and Morales got out. He said that Bridges and Morales got out of the van and told the Banks cousins to follow them, claiming that they would show the cousins where Bridges hid his drugs. When the Banks cousins grew suspicious and refused to comply, Bridges walked around to the front of the minivan and started shooting.

Johnson claimed that, as he bailed out of the van, Bridges shot him in the abdomen. Johnson said that as he began to run away, he saw Bridges shooting into the van at the Banks cousins. Johnson said he then made his way to the restaurant, where the police found him.

Gregory Banks was shot five times and Damon Banks was shot 13 times.

Police questioned Bridges and said that he gave a statement that Johnson drove the van down Neversink Road and “pulled in to a little cut in a road.” Bridges said he was in the front passenger seat and Morales was seated in the second seat next to the sliding door. Gregory Banks was next to Morales and Damon Banks was on the other side of Gregory Banks, Bridges said. Bridges claimed that after they stopped, Johnson began shooting both victims. Bridges said that Johnson then ran around the side of the van, opened the door, pulled the Banks cousins out of the van and continued to shoot. At that point, Bridges said he saw a gun on the floor and began to shoot at Johnson.

When Johnson began to run away from the van, Bridges said he got back in the van and drove to a street corner in Reading. There, he poured gasoline in the van and set a match to it, completely gutting the vehicle.

On December 12, 1996, Bridges, Morales and Johnson were charged with capital murder, assault, drug possession, conspiracy and possession of an instrument of a crime for the murders of the Banks cousins.

In January 1997, Morales and Johnson were charged with the murder of 25-year-old Jose Martinez, who was fatally shot on November 1, 1996—five weeks before the Banks cousins were killed. Police said that Johnson and Morales were enforcers for Bridges and that they killed Martinez because Martinez had failed to pay Bridges for drugs.

In November 1997, Johnson went to trial in Berks County Court of Common Pleas for the murders of the Banks cousins. He was tried separately from Bridges. The charges against Morales were dropped.

A forensic pathologist testified that one of the bullets recovered from the body of Damon Banks was a .38 caliber bullet. A police officer testified that a .38-caliber handgun was recovered near the scene of the murders. A police firearms analyst testified that the bullet recovered from Damon Banks's autopsy had been fired from the revolver.

George Robles testified for the prosecution that Johnson owned a .38-caliber pistol like the one found near the crime scene. In addition, Robles testified that he visited Johnson in the hospital just after the murder, and that Johnson confessed to taking the .38-caliber murder weapon from the scene, wiping it off with his shirt, and then throwing it on the side of the road about a quarter mile away.

Johnson’s defense lawyer attacked Robles’s credibility by attempting to show that he was involved in ongoing criminal activities and was an informant for the Reading Police Department. However, District Attorney Mark Baldwin objected, and characterized the defense’s suggestion that Robles was a drug dealer or an informant as “absurd.”

Baldwin said that Robles had never been convicted of, or even arrested for, any crime. The trial judge said he would allow the defense to inquire about any “legitimate area” of Robles’s possible bias. However, the defense had little information to confront Robles with and Robles denied any involvement in any criminal activity.

On November 26, 1997, Johnson was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and aggravated assault. He was sentenced to death.

Bridges was convicted in a subsequent trial and sentenced to death. Robles was a key witness in that trial as well.

In July 1998, Johnson was convicted of the murder of Jose Martinez. In that trial, Robles testified that Johnson admitted shooting Martinez as did Mylta Velazquez, Johnson’s former girlfriend.

When police first approached Robles and Velazquez, they denied any knowledge of the shooting. Robles testified that police came back to him between six and 12 times. Finally, Robles claimed, on December 17, 1996, “my consci[ence] was killing me,” and he gave the police a statement implicating Johnson and Morales in the murder of Martinez.

Robles testified that Johnson came directly to his home after the shooting and admitted to his involvement. According to Robles, Johnson confronted Martinez at a Getty’s Mart about a debt Martinez owed. Robles said Johnson told him that he fired twice at Martinez, but missed. Johnson said he chased Martinez in a van and then shot Martinez on the street. Robles also claimed that Morales turned up at his home about 15 minutes after Johnson left and confirmed Johnson’s account.

Three days after Robles came forward, Velazquez, despite earlier denials, claimed for the first time that Johnson had confessed to killing Martinez as part of a hit.

On July 14, 1998, Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of a crime and illegal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Morales’s first trial ended in a mistrial when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. He was subsequently retried and convicted of murder in 2000. He was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.

After Johnson was sentenced to death in the Banks murders, his lawyers discovered a letter that Robles had sent to Reading Police Detective Angel Cabrera while Robles was jailed as a material witness when he initially failed to appear to testify against Johnson. In that letter, Robles said he would “do anything” to get out of jail. Johnson’s lawyers argued that this was impeachment evidence that the prosecution had failed to disclose to the defense. The judge rejected that claim, noting that the prosecution had turned over a police report that “referenced the Robles letter.”

Johnson’s appeals of both cases were affirmed on direct appeal.

In 2005, Johnson filed a post-conviction relief act petition seeking to overturn his conviction for the Banks murders. While that petition was pending, he also was pursuing a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Martinez murder case, represented by attorneys David Zuckerman, Samuel Angell, and Michal Gonzales. In that case, a federal judge ordered the prosecution to disclose to Johnson any evidence of a relationship between Robles and the Reading Police Department or the Berks County District Attorney's office, “including any documents relevant to Robles being a paid or unpaid informant or a cooperating witness.”

In response, the prosecution turned over five police reports, each of which detailed investigations into Robles's criminal conduct.

The first report was dated February 27, 1996—nine months before Martinez was murdered and 10 months before the Banks murders. It described an incident in which Robles approached two men, threatened them at gunpoint, and discharged a gun into the air. When Detective Cabrera confronted Robles about the incident, Robles attempted to avoid arrest by offering to provide information about an unsolved murder. Robles ultimately identified the perpetrator of that homicide and he was never charged in connection with the assault.

The second police report, dated April 25, 1996, involved a gang-related shootout near Robles's residence. During their investigation, the police learned that immediately after the shooting, a juvenile who had been staying with Robles hid guns and drugs in a safe that Robles owned and kept in a nearby apartment. The police also discovered that Robles's neighbors suspected that Robles was selling drugs out of his residence. The report said that Detective Cabrera recovered the by-then empty safe from a neighbor. Instead of seizing the safe, Detective Cabrera returned it to Robles.

When the police questioned the juvenile, Robles falsely claimed that he was the juvenile's guardian so that he could remain present during the interview. Robles ultimately advised the juvenile to confess in a manner that did not implicate Robles. Although Detective Cabrera discovered Robles's fingerprint on a cigar box containing 103 bags of crack cocaine that was recovered from the shooting suspect, and although Detective Cabrera threatened to arrest Robles, the police never charged him.

The third police report, dated August 1, 1997, involved the investigation of a call for shots fired. When police responded, they encountered Robles, who admitted to being armed with a firearm, which he lawfully was licensed to carry. A man with Robles matched the description of the shooter, and the ammunition from Robles's gun was the same type as the spent shell casings found on the ground. Robles denied any involvement, the complainant remained anonymous, and Robles was not charged.

A fourth police report, dated September 18, 1997, documented a police response to a report of shots fired on the block where Robles lived. The responding officer, who spoke with Robles, wrote in the report that he suspected Robles was involved in drug dealing. Robles was not charged in connection with this incident.

And the fifth police report, dated November 7, 1997, described how three witnesses reported that shots were fired from Robles's residence. When police arrived, they recovered shell casings from a .40-caliber weapon. Robles told the police that he was not home when the shots were fired, and he denied owning a .40-caliber weapon. However, Detective Cabrera recovered a .40-caliber pistol that was registered to Robles. Robles was not charged.

In August 2010, Johnson amended his pending PCRA petition in the Banks murder case to claim that the prosecution had failed to disclose the police reports.

In federal court, Johnson’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Martinez case was denied. He appealed and in January 2013, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for a hearing.

In 2015, Johnson’s state court petition for relief was granted and his conviction and death sentence were vacated. Judge Scott Keller characterized Robles as “an important Commonwealth witness,” and ruled that Johnson’s defense lawyer at trial could have used the withheld evidence to expose Robles's potential bias. Keller ruled that the “volume of…Robles' interactions with the Reading Police Department is clearly relevant to his bias and desire to assist the police and the Commonwealth to avoid interference with his own activities.” Keller said that had the reports been disclosed, the defense’s cross-examination of Robles might have been very different, since the withheld evidence had “a direct bearing” on Robles's desire to testify against Johnson.

Meanwhile, a federal judge granted a federal habeas petition filed by Bridges, who was challenging his conviction and death sentence in the Banks murder case based on the failure of the prosecution to disclose the Robles police reports. Bridges subsequently pled guilty to a lesser charge and was released.

In December 2017, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld Judge Keller’s ruling that vacated Johnson’s conviction and death sentence in the Banks murder case. The court said Robles was “the linchpin” for the prosecution’s case against Johnson. In February 2019, Johnson’s federal habeas writ in the Martinez murder case was granted and his conviction and life prison term were vacated.

In 2019, Johnson’s lawyer, Jay Nigrini, filed a motion seeking to dismiss the Banks murder case. The motion said that the prosecution’s failure to disclose the reports was so egregious that to subject Johnson to a retrial was a violation of his double jeopardy protection. Under the federal and state double jeopardy clauses, retrials may be barred when the convictions were obtained by intentional prosecutorial misconduct.

The motion applied to both the Banks murder case and the Martinez murder case because both had been consolidated since the failure to disclose the Robles police reports had been established in both cases. The state subsequently said it would seek to retry Johnson in the Banks murder case, but would not seek the death penalty.

In October 2020, Judge Eleni Geishauser granted the motion and dismissed both murder prosecutions. Judge Geishauser said there was “no doubt that District Attorney Mark Baldwin, who prosecuted both cases, made a conscious and purposeful decision to not disclose” the Robles police reports. “The deliberate nature of his contemptuous behavior is evidenced in the fact that he blatantly lied about his knowledge of the reports directly to the court,” the judge said.

“The prosecutorial misconduct that occurred in these two cases was egregious,” Judge Geishauser ruled, and “resulted in [Johnson] spending twenty-two years on death row.”

“Had these acts been committed by a witness,” Judge Geishauser ruled, “the individual could have been, and in all likelihood would have been, charged with obstruction of justice. Had these acts been committed by defense counsel, in addition to charges, a disciplinary action would have been initiated that would potentially result in the suspension or loss of legal license. Mr. Baldwin’s position as District Attorney seems to have protected him from such censure. But in this matter, all men are equal before the law and this court renders judgment of Mr. Baldwin’s egregious behavior.”

On December 1, 2020, after the prosecution said it would not appeal Judge Geishauser’s ruling, both murder cases were dismissed, and Johnson was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/11/2021
Last Updated: 1/11/2021
State:Pennsylvania
County:Berks
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Death
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No