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William Johnson

Other Exonerations from Philadelphia County
At about 2 a.m. on August 26, 2005, Terrence Flomo, an off-duty police officer, was shot to death inside an unmarked police car near the corner of Cecil B. Moore Avenue and 20th Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Flomo often worked undercover, but there was no indication he was on the job at the time of his death. As officers canvassed the neighborhood for witnesses, they learned that Flomo had apparently solicited a female sex worker just before the shooting.

During the investigation, police recovered two white T-shirts near the shooting, which they believed had been worn by the assailants. The police found a hair on one shirt, but the hair lacked a root, making it unsuitable for DNA testing at that time.

According to the police, Brenda Bowens said in a statement on September 8, 2005, that Flomo had called out to her on August 26, but she waved him off because she had just finished with a customer and was going to the store and then a crack house to get high. On the way, she saw 24-year-old William Johnson and 23- year-old Mumin Slaughter, who occasionally sold her drugs, and told them about the customer. She said Johnson and Slaughter walked up to the car, and then she heard and saw gunshots.

A second sex worker, Nora Williams, gave a different account. According to her statement, Williams saw Bowens argue with a man in a car and then talk with Slaughter and Johnson. The man then drove off but returned a short while later. Williams said Slaughter and Johnson approached the car, and she saw and heard shots. In the statements produced by the police, both women said that Slaughter stood on the driver side of the car, while Johnson stood on the passenger side.

Police arrested Johnson on September 9, 2005, and Slaughter a few days later. Both men were charged with first-degree murder.

They were tried jointly in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas in September 2007. The jury acquitted both men of first-degree murder. The jury convicted Slaughter of the lesser count of third-degree murder, but Judge Jeffrey Minehart declared a mistrial for Johnson when the jury could not reach a verdict for Johnson on that charge. Slaughter received a sentence of 25 to 50 years in prison.

Prior to Johnson’s retrial, Slaughter entered into a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. On September 5, 2008, he gave a statement that said Johnson was the shooter, and prosecutors agreed to a motion to vacate his sentence and hold a resentencing hearing after Johnson’s case was resolved.

Johnson’s second trial began on May 28, 2009, with Judge Minehart again presiding.

There was no physical or forensic evidence tying Johnson to the shooting. The jury was told that there were no DNA findings with respect to the shirts.

Dr. Edwin Lieberman, a medical examiner, testified that Flomo was shot three times, twice in the right arm and once on the right side of his chest. He said that based on the injuries and evidence related to the location of gunshot residue, the bullets came from the passenger side of the car, approximately three feet from Flomo.

At trial, Bowens testified that she knew Slaughter and Johnson because she bought drugs from them. She said that after she turned down Flomo’s proposition, she ran into Slaughter and Johnson on the way to the store. When she left the store, she saw the two men leaning on Flomo’s car, with Johnson on the passenger side. She said she saw sparks and heard gunshots. Bowens testified that she gave police two statements that she didn’t see anything, but gave a third statement, on September 8, 2005, because her family feared for her safety. She testified that after the preliminary hearing, she had to move because of threats.

On cross-examination, Bowens said the events happened in a “mini-second,” and she could not be sure of what she saw. She also testified that she was between 300 feet and 600 feet from Flomo’s vehicle at the time of the shooting.

Williams testified that she was high on crack at the time of the murder. She said that she saw Bowens get into Flomo’s car and stay there for about five minutes, before Bowens and Flomo began arguing. Like Bowens, Williams said she only saw the two men who got close to Flomo’s car for a “mini-second.” Williams testified that she initially told police she didn’t see anything but in a second statement said she saw Slaughter and Johnson. At the time, Williams had an open bench warrant for her arrest, and she testified that she was relocated after “certain things” happened in her neighborhood.

During his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Carlos Vega had told the jury that Slaughter would be testifying, which he called “the moment of truth.”

Although the state had subpoenaed Slaughter, he refused to come into the courtroom. Outside the presence of the jury, Vega told Judge Minehart that Slaughter had to testify; his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination didn’t apply because he had already been found guilty.

Slaughter was brought into the courtroom. He refused to answer questions about his statement and tried to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, which Judge Minehart said he could not do. The trial adjourned for the weekend.

When court resumed on Monday, Slaughter’s attorney spoke with Judge Minehart and said that Slaughter acknowledged making the statement but was told its sole use would be to induce Johnson to plead guilty. The attorney said Slaughter didn’t want to testify and that he didn’t know who shot Flomo.

With the jury back in the courtroom, Slaughter continued to not answer Vega’s questions. Over the objection of Johnson’s attorney, Nino Tinari, Vega entered Slaughter’s statement into evidence and displayed it on a screen for the jury.

Vega asked Slaughter if he said he made a statement to help himself and keep Johnson from going to trial. Slaughter said: “Listen, I got found guilty for a fucking murder that nobody don’t know who killed this man. They gave me 50 years and nobody said I did nothing … They said just say that you all did it and he won’t want to go to trial. You can get your 50 years back and he’ll take a statement – I mean, he’ll take a deal. He won’t want to go nowhere, because he be scared if I come out there with all these other liars saying that we did something. I didn’t have no choice. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. A desperate man do desperate things. I tried it. Now, he didn’t go for it. He didn’t take it because he know me. He know that I was lying. He knew that I wouldn’t do this, because it was a lie.”

Later, Tinari tried, without success, to cross-examine Slaughter. Tinari moved for a mistrial because he was not able to confront the witness. Judge Minehart suggested instead that Tinari was waiving his right to cross-examine Slaughter. Vega said that Slaughter and Tinari were in cahoots. Judge Minehart denied the motion for a mistrial.

When the trial resumed, a detective read Slaughter’s statement to the jury.

Johnson did not testify. A woman named Debra Bryant had testified at the first trial that she saw two other men shoot Flomo. She did not testify at the second trial, but her testimony was read to the jury.

In his closing argument, Vega mocked Slaughter’s attempt to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights. “See, he thinks he knows the law,” Vega said. “But he didn’t go to the library long enough to know what we can do and what we can’t do.”

The jury convicted Johnson of third-degree murder and conspiracy on June 3, 2009. He received a sentence of 30 to 60 years in prison. Slaughter’s sentence was later reduced to 20 to 40 years in prison.

Johnson appealed, arguing that his conviction was tainted based on Slaughter’s contentious appearance in the courtroom, the introduction of Slaughter’s statement to police, and the inability of Tinari to cross-examine Slaughter.

Judge Minehart affirmed the conviction on February 5, 2010. He wrote that Slaughter’s statement should not have been introduced, but the error was harmless because the statement was “duplicative and cumulative” of the testimony by Williams and Bowens and “was clearly harmless.” Judge Minehart also said that Johnson could not raise on appeal the issue of Slaughter being forced to testify because Tinari didn’t object during the trial.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the ruling, but noted that Judge Minehart, the prosecutor, and Tinari “were operating under the mistaken belief that Slaughter had no Fifth Amendment privilege.”

On September 10, 2012, Johnson, now represented by David Rudovsky, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The petition said that once Vega knew Slaughter would assert his Fifth Amendment rights, federal court rulings forbade him from putting Slaughter on the witness stand, because of what the jury would infer when Slaughter refused to testify. The petition also argued that the state courts had erred in their conclusions that the constitutional violations Johnson suffered were harmless.

“At the second trial, where the only difference in the Commonwealth's case was the inadmissible evidence, the jury returned a verdict of guilt,” the petition said. “There could not be a more telling ‘acid test’ on the nature of the error.”

On December 18, 2013, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Hey recommended Johnson’s petition be denied. She agreed with the state that the constitutional violations were harmless and that it was speculative to conclude that Slaughter’s testimony and related evidence determined the outcome of the second trial. Judge Anita Brody adopted the recommendations on June 30, 2014. Judges in the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Brody’s ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In 2018, the Philadelphia Police Department conducted DNA testing on the T-shirts recovered near the shooting. Johnson was excluded as a contributor to genetic material found on one T-shirt. On the other T-shirt, the results were inconclusive. The hair found on the shirt lacked sufficient genetic material for testing.

Separately, Bowens, who turned her life around after the trial, recanted her testimony on August 18, 2020. In an affidavit, she said that two detectives threatened her with arrest on a probation violation unless she implicated Johnson and Slaughter in the shooting.

“Faced with this pressure, threats of an arrest and incarceration, being high on drugs, and with no resources, I agreed to provide a statement along the lines of what I was told to say,” Bowens said. “To the basic story that was told to me by the detectives, I added some simple facts about the neighborhood. My statement on September 8, 2005 was false as to all details relating to the shooting and I regret to this day having agreed to provide this statement to the Detectives.”

Rudovsky and Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project filed a motion for post-conviction relief in state court in March 2021. The motion said the DNA results were evidence of innocence and that the state had failed to disclose that detectives coerced Bowens into making false statements. As part of the motion, Johnson’s attorneys asked for the complete case files from the police and the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office.

On September 29, 2022, Johnson moved to reopen his federal habeas petition, alleging that the state had misled the courts on the strength of the evidence against Johnson. The files turned over by the district attorney’s office in response to the motion for post-conviction relief contained several pieces of impeachment evidence that had not been disclosed at trial or during the appeals.

Williams had testified that she received relocation assistance based on threats she received. But documents indicated the assistance came nearly a year after she allegedly reported the threats. She also received additional assistance unrelated to any threats. The state’s file also contained Williams’s medical records, which said that she suffered from hallucinations at the time of the shooting.

Separately, the case filed contained two separate letters Bowens wrote to Vega and Lynne Abraham, the district attorney from 1991-2010.

In the letter to Abraham, dated February 21, 2006, Bowens wrote: “As of today, I am setting the record straight. I will not be a witness. I was forced by [the detectives] to give my statement, or should I say, they told me what to say!” Bowens’s letter to Vega contained similar statements and asked for her witness detainer to be lifted so she could be released from jail.

On March 9, 2023, prosecutors and Johnson’s attorneys submitted a joint stipulation, asking a federal judge to grant Johnson’s habeas petition.

“The failure to disclose this Brady material before trial, and the continued failure of the prosecution’s appellate, post-conviction, and federal habeas lawyers to disclose the evidence, violated Johnson’s rights to due process of law,” the stipulation said. “And, this suppression of favorable and impeaching evidence allowed the Commonwealth to make misrepresentations (regardless whether those misrepresentations were purposefully made) to this Court regarding the harmless error issue.”

Judge Brody granted the motion on March 13, 2023, vacating Johnson’s conviction. Johnson remained in prison, awaiting the state’s decision on how to proceed.

Prosecutors moved to dismiss the charges on June 7, 2023. In a motion, prosecutors said they interviewed Abraham about the letter, and she believed that Bowens was lying. “In response to a question of whether the letter was disclosed to defense counsel prior to trial, her ‘guess’ was that Carlos Vega saw the letter and also thought it was ‘bullshit,’” the motion said. “But [Abraham] said she did not know what was done with the letter because once she forwarded the letter on, she did not ‘interfere’ with cases.”

The motion later said, “The suggestion that a prosecutor is relieved of their Brady obligation if they believe an exculpatory statement is untruthful is a startling admission from a District Attorney who served for 19 years.”

Judge Lillian Ransom of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas granted the motion to dismiss on June 8, 2023. Johnson was released from prison that day.

In January 2024, Johnson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia and several police officers seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/15/2023
Last Updated: 1/26/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2005
Sentence:30 to 60 years
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes