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Ronnell Johnson

Other Michigan Exonerations
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At about 7 a.m. on March 30, 2007, four men robbed the Mr. Bubble Auto Spa in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Two of the men approached Mark Elker, the owner of the carwash, as he was opening the business. One of the men wore a hooded jacket and carried a long-barreled revolver; the other had a mask that covered his face from the nose down. They threw Elker to the ground, began to beat him, and demanded that he open the business’s safe. They forced Elker into the office and the man with the weapon continued to hit Elker until he opened the safe. The men grabbed the money and fled, joined by two other men – also wearing masks – who had assisted in the robbery.

The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office investigated. Elker was unable to identify any of the robbers. Deputies did not find any useful fingerprints or other evidence at the carwash. The business’s security cameras had captured some of the robbery, and the footage was distributed to local television stations.

A week later, on April 7, 2007, Ronald Johnson called the sheriff’s office and said that the robber with the half mask was his son, 20-year-old Ronnell Johnson. Johnson would later testify that he recognized his son based on his eyebrows, as well as the coat, gloves, and scarf he wore.

Sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant that day on Ronnell Johnson’s home, where he lived with his sister, his mother, the mother’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s son. Johnson shared a room with his sister, and deputies found a gun in a large container of clothing and two black coats.

Johnson was arrested later that day and charged with two counts of armed robbery, unlawful possession of a weapon, and unlawful use of a weapon. Officers made no other arrests in the case.

Johnson’s bench trial in Washtenaw County Circuit Court began in February 2008 before Judge Archie Brown. Prior to the trial’s start, Johnson’s attorney, Kingsley Arimah, filed a motion for discovery related to Ronald Johnson’s criminal history, much of which would have been in Michigan’s Law Enforcement Information Network, known as LEIN. He said it was necessary to prepare his cross-examination and also possibly for impeachment purposes.

At a hearing on February 13, 2008, Judge Brown denied the motion. He said that Michigan prevented the disclosure of LEIN information to a private person. But Judge Brown also said that “the prosecutor has an obligation to turn over information regarding a witness’ criminal background that would be beneficial to the defendant and that the prosecutor otherwise has in his file.”

At trial, Elker testified about the robbery. He could not identify the assailants but said that he believed the two men he saw were shorter than his height of 6 feet tall. Ronnell Johnson is 6 feet 1 inch tall, according to a measurement taken at the time of his arrest.

Ronald Johnson testified that he was positive Ronnell was the person he saw on the surveillance video. “I mean, this is clear as day,” he said.

Cynthia Fort, who was Ronald Johnson’s sister and Ronnell Johnson’s aunt, also testified that her nephew was the person in the surveillance video. But she gave inconsistent answers about her initial viewing of the video. She first testified that Ronald Johnson told her that “I just taped Ronnell on TV” before she saw the video. Later, she testified that her brother had not mentioned Ronnell’s name before she viewed the video.

There was no physical evidence connecting Ronnell Johnson to the robbery. The gun found in the shared bedroom tested negative for blood, and it wasn’t shown that the weapon belonged to Ronnell Johnson. The Michigan State Police tested one of the coats in the bedroom and found no dried fluids.

Other evidence also pointed to a different coat being connected to the crime than either garment found during the search of the house. Based on the video, the coat worn by the assailant appeared to have a different zipper and also a patch on the left chest area. In addition, a closer inspection of the video showed the suspect wasn’t wearing fingerless driving gloves, as Ronald Johnson testified, but rather batting gloves.

Arnita Baskin, Ronnell’s mother, testified that Ronald Johnson had called her and said “Did you see your son, the world’s dumbest criminal, on the news?” Baskin testified that she watched the footage and concluded that it wasn’t her son.

Baskin also gave Ronnell an incomplete alibi. She testified that on the morning of the robbery she saw her son sleeping on the sofa at about 6:15-6:25 as she got ready for work. Her boyfriend, Jerry Greer, testified that he saw Ronnell on the couch that morning, although he did not give a precise time.

Baskin also testified that Ronald Johnson had been a physically and mentally abusive partner. She testified that he had almost no contact with Ronnell.

In closing arguments, the state vouched for Ronald Johnson’s credibility, stating he “was not a person who came to this court with any agenda.”

Judge Brown found Johnson guilty of two counts of armed robbery and two weapons charges on March 24, 2008. He said he couldn’t conclude that the coat found at Johnson’s house was the same as that worn by the robber. Instead, Judge Brown, who called the case “surreal,” relied on Ronald Johnson’s testimony, which he said was bolstered by Fort, and said that “there are any number of reasons why an individual may give up their child.” Brown later sentenced Johnson to 15 to 25 years in prison.

Johnson appealed. He argued that Judge Brown should have suppressed the evidence seized in the execution of the search warrant because it was based solely on Ronald Johnson’s identification. Johnson’s appeal noted his strained relationship and very limited contact with his father, which made his identification less reliable. Johnson also claimed that Arimah had been ineffective for failing to present evidence that Johnson was too tall to have been one of the robbers.

The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on November 24, 2009. It said, “There is no evidence in the record indicating that [Ronald] Johnson provided false information to the police, let alone evidence that the police knowingly, intentionally, or with reckless disregard inserted false information obtained from Johnson into the affidavit submitted to the magistrate.” The appellate court also said that Arimah wasn’t ineffective. He had brought up the height issue during his closing argument, and Judge Brown was able to properly weigh this issue prior to reaching a decision.

In late 2014, the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School began reviewing Johnson’s case. During the investigation by law students, Fort recanted her testimony.

In a 2015 affidavit, Fort said that five years had passed since she last saw Ronnell in person at the time that her brother initially asked her to take a look at a picture from the surveillance footage. She said in her affidavit that when she first viewed the footage, she thought it could be Ronnell, but she wasn’t sure.

Fort said that Ronald Johnson asked several family members to testify. “I was the only one who said that I would,” she said. “Ronnie told me he thought Ronnell would be killed on the streets and would be safer in prison. I testified because I thought it was the best way to protect Ronnell based on what Ronnie told me.”

Fort said she reviewed her trial testimony and that she must have misunderstood a question when she testified that she was sure that Ronnell Johnson was the suspect. “I was never certain,” she said. “I only thought the suspect looked like Ronnell. I no longer even think that Ronnell could be the suspect … That suspect was shorter, thicker, had darker skin and a distinctly different hairline than Ronnell.”

Separately, the Michigan Innocence Clinic consulted with Phil Locke, an expert on photogrammetric analysis who works with several innocence organizations. Locke analyzed the surveillance video and measurements of fixed objects at the carwash and determined that it was unlikely that Johnson was in the footage. He estimated the person said to be Johnson was only 5 feet 9 inches tall.

But the Innocence Clinic decided not to file a motion for relief at that time, believing that Johnson was unlikely to prevail in court with the new evidence it had gathered.

On January 28, 2021, Johnson filed a pro se motion for relief in Washtenaw County Circuit Court. Later that year, the court ordered the office of Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit to respond to the motion. Savit had taken office in 2021, and among his first steps was to create a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to review claims of wrongful convictions.

During its review of the case, the CIU found that Ronald Johnson had entered into a plea deal with the state for an unrelated crime while Ronnell Johnson’s charges were pending and that this information was not disclosed to Arimah.

According to court records, Ronald Johnson was charged with two counts of felonious assault on January 12, 2007. On February 2, 2007, a habitual offender notice was filed, based on an earlier conviction for manslaughter. Police reports said that Johnson threatened a woman with a rifle outside an apartment building. He then threatened the first officer to respond, pointing his weapon at the deputy and yelling, “You better get the f--- out here boy before I shoot your ass.”

On May 3, 2007, less than a month after implicating his son, Johnson agreed to plead guilty to a single count of misdemeanor assault. Prosecutors dismissed the felony charges a month later, and Johnson was sentenced to 18 months on probation.

After learning of this information, the CIU contacted the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which now agreed to represent Ronnell Johnson. In a supplement to Johnson’s initial motion, the clinic’s attorneys said Ronald Johnson’s plea deal with prosecutors was critical evidence that needed to be disclosed based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brady v. Maryland. “Simply put, the State’s star witness had received a significant benefit from the prosecution in the leadup to Ronnell Johnson’s trial, but this fact was not disclosed to the defense,” the motion said.

There was nothing in the record proving that Ronald Johnson received this favorable plea deal in exchange for testimony against his son. The motion said that was unimportant. “It is enough that [he] received a plea agreement at all, since such agreement is highly relevant to the factfinder’s determination of the witness’s credibility, motives and biases.”

In its response, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor conceded its failure to turn over this evidence and supported Johnson’s motion for relief.

The response noted that Judge Brown had speculated on why Ronald Johnson implicated Ronnell. “And yet, because the People suppressed evidence of Ronald’s criminal history, absent among the reasons this Court listed was the possibility that Ronald had motivations for his own well-being over Defendant’s,” the response said. “The Court was never even able to consider—nor was the defense able to explore—the possibility that Ronald identified Defendant in an attempt to curry favor with law enforcement.”

The response also said that prosecutors found nothing to suggest that the failure to disclose this evidence was deliberate or intentional. Instead, the response said the error was unintentional and based on a communications breakdown in the office.

Aside from the disclosure violations, the state’s response also credited Locke’s report, which said that the man in the surveillance footage was about 5 feet 9 inches tall. “The People admit that this height does not match the reported height of Defendant and rather could corroborate the victim’s testimony that the perpetrators were shorter than him,” the response said.

On June 1, 2022, Judge Patrick Conlin granted Johnson’s motion for relief, vacating his conviction, and then dismissed the charges against him upon a motion from the prosecutor. Johnson was released from prison that afternoon.

At the hearing, which took place over Zoom, Frances Walters, the director of the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit, said that Johnson’s constitutional rights had been violated. “For that, we sincerely apologize to Mr. Johnson,” she said. This was the Washtenaw CIU’s first exoneration.

Johnson celebrated his release with friends and family and later surprised his daughter, now 16 years old, at a restaurant. He told the Detroit Free Press that he is no longer angry about what happened. “I don’t have one piece of angry bone in my body,” he said. “I can tell you that from the bottom of my heart.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/8/2022
Last Updated: 6/8/2022
State:Michigan
County:Washtenaw
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Gun Possession or Sale, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2007
Convicted:2008
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:15 to 25 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No