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Ronald Johnson

Other Philadelphia, Pennsylvania homicide exonerations
On March 1, 1990, 32-year-old Joseph Goldsby was selling drugs as he sat in his car parked in the 2100 block of Westmoreland Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when two men approached. One got into the front seat while the other stood on the sidewalk. A struggle ensued inside the vehicle and four shots were fired. The car rolled away and struck a pole. The man on the sidewalk pointed his gun at the passenger side of the car, but the gun did not discharge. Both men then fled. Goldsby got out, but collapsed and died.

Two days later, Goldsby’s father contacted the police and said that the “word in the neighborhood” was that Goldsby had some problems with a man known as “Spanky” and that 27-year-old Ronald Johnson was a friend of Spanky’s. Goldsby’s father also said that Mark Jackson had witnessed the shooting. At about the same time, detectives learned that Darryl Alexander may have been on the scene at the time of the shooting.

Jackson and Alexander were interviewed by police and gave nearly identical accounts: Goldsby was in his car selling drugs. The two men approached. One got inside and shots were fired. The second gunman aimed a gun at Goldsby, but it never fired.

When the detectives asked them if they had seen Johnson at the crime, they were unequivocal: Both knew Johnson and he had not been there. Alexander told Detective Franklin McGuoirk, “I know him [Johnson] but I don’t think it was him that night. I do know him and if it was him, I would have known him.”

However, detectives said that after Jackson and Alexander were questioned numerous times over the next few weeks, they came to identify Johnson as the second man whose gun had not discharged. Until their final interview, they disagreed on whether Johnson was the first or second gunman.

In his second interview, Alexander was shown a photo array and identified Shawn Duncan as the man who got in the car. Asked if he remembered anything about the man outside the car, Alexander said, “No, nothing.”

In Alexander’s third interview, on April 9, 1990, he was shown a photo array that included Johnson’s photo. For the first time, Alexander identified Johnson as the second gunman. It was not until his fourth interview, on April 16, that he told detectives that he was more certain that the second gunman was Johnson. He appeared more confident of his identification but his confidence came from third-hand information, not his own observations.

On April 19, 1990, Johnson was arrested on charges of murder, conspiracy, and possession of an instrument of crime.

In October 1991, Johnson went to trial in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The prosecution sought the death penalty.

Alexander testified that there was “no doubt in my mind” that Johnson was the second gunman. He conceded that at first, he had not paid any attention to them when he saw them on the street. He also admitted that he told detectives that he knew Johnson and he initially said Johnson wasn’t there.

Johnson’s defense attorney wanted to impeach Alexander with his statements during his first interview, but he had difficulty overcoming the prosecution’s objections due to his failure to lay a proper foundation and to ask questions in the proper form. The defense lawyer didn’t even attempt to impeach Alexander with his second and third statements. In his second statement, Alexander had been asked about Johnson, and he had said, “I’m not sure if it was him or not. I would have to see him again.”

Jackson testified that he had “no doubt” that Johnson was the second gunman. The defense only questioned Jackson about his first statement—during which he said Johnson wasn’t there. In Jackson’s second statement, he said the second gunman was Johnson’s brother, David Johnson. In total, Jackson had been interviewed six times. Although during his interrogations, he had been shown some Polaroid photographs and had identified one of them—not Johnson—as the man who got into the car and shot Goldsby, Jackson was not asked about that identification at trial.

Jackson testified that after his two interviews, he decided “[t]hat justice needed to be served and I just need to stand up and tell the truth.” He said he went back to police on April 16, 1990—the same day as Alexander’s fourth interview. It was finally during this interview that he aligned his statement with Alexander's statement.

Detective McGuoirk testified that during that April 16 interview, Alexander selected a photograph of Johnson from an array of eight photographs. The defense sought to cross-examine McGuoirk about Alexander’s second and third statements, but the prosecution objected on the ground that the defense had only asked Alexander about his first statement. The judge sustained the objection.

The defense called Johnson and Richard Duncan, who gave similar testimony. They said that on the evening of the shooting, they went to a bar at 21st and Madison Streets where they met a man who took them to a location where they bought cocaine. Duncan said they drove to another location to get high. There, they saw two other men, Jimmy Smith and a man they knew as Joe. They got high together. While they were there, Smith mentioned that Goldsby had been killed, Duncan and Johnson said.

Johnson said he had planned to ask his brother for money, but after driving around, they couldn’t find him. So Smith got some money from his apartment. At about 1 a.m. on March 2, 1990, they returned to the prior spot to resume smoking cocaine. Johnson said he and Duncan remained together for the next two days. Both men denied going to Westmoreland Street and denied involvement in the crime.

On October 28, 1991, the jury convicted Johnson of first-degree murder, conspiracy, and possession of an instrument of crime. The jury declined to impose the death penalty and Johnson was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

After his direct appeal was denied, Johnson filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming his defense lawyer provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call two other witnesses who would have testified that Johnson was not at the scene of the time. During those proceedings, Johnson discovered a previously undisclosed letter the prosecution sent to authorities in Florida asking for leniency for Jackson in an unrelated case because of Jackson’s testimony in Johnson’s trial. The letter was dated October 24, 1991, the same day Jackson testified.

The habeas petition was denied, although the federal judge said the case was “a close call.” The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in 2008.

Ultimately, Johnson came to be represented by the law firm of Phillips Black. In 2021, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) disclosed its entire file to the defense. In June 2022, an amended Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition was filed in state court seeking to vacate Johnson’s conviction.

The petition said that the police had failed to disclose additional interviews with Alexander and Jackson. Moreover, the police had not disclosed that Johnson’s photo was among the Polaroid photos shown to Jackson and Alexander and that neither man identified Johnson as the second gunman.

The petition said that in the case of Alexander, the prosecution had not revealed that he was shown photographs at all, let alone that he failed to identify Johnson. The prosecution had withheld evidence that Jackson was questioned two additional times and that in the final interview, he and Alexander had been questioned together. The petition said that Detective McGuoirk had coached Jackson to change his statement—he had maintained that Johnson was the first gunman in the car—to agree with Alexander’s statement that Johnson was the second gunman. The petition said that the prosecution had failed to reveal the tip about the alternative suspect as well as a report from a witness that said the two men involved in the killing were not from the same neighborhood where Johnson lived.

Following an investigation by the CIU, on August 31, 2023, attorneys for Phillips Black filed an amended PCRA petition. In November 2023, the CIU filed a response that agreed that Johnson was entitled to a new trial.

“Based on its extensive investigation and review of the record, the Commonwealth agrees that Johnson is entitled to relief,” the CIU said. “In its review of the files, the CIU discovered substantial evidence casting doubt on Alexander’s and Jackson’s identifications. The undisclosed evidence reveals that when detectives showed Alexander and Jackson a series of Polaroid photos, including a photo of Johnson, neither Alexander nor Jackson identified him as one of the perpetrators. In fact, Jackson identified another individual…as the shooter.”

The CIU said that the detectives “focused exclusively on eliciting inculpatory statements from Alexander and Jackson. Ultimately detectives questioned Alexander and Jackson a total of nine times, culminating in an undisclosed joint interview during which Jackson was coached to align his ever-changing statement with Alexander’s.”

The response noted that at trial, when McGuoirk was asked whether he showed Alexander a photo array, McGuoirk testified only about the array in which Alexander had identified Johnson. He made no mention of the Polaroid photos. When asked whether he prepared an arrest warrant, he did not disclose that the prosecution had refused to sign off on an initial arrest warrant he prepared. The prosecution had refused to sign off because the statements by Jackson and Alexander were inconsistent. And when asked about Alexander’s April 16th interview, McGuoirk failed to mention that Jackson was also present.

The petition noted that during a post-verdict hearing in the case, McGuoirk had testified falsely that none of the witnesses ever identified the gunman who got in the car, despite the tip that Duncan was the man in the car. There was no evidence that detectives ever questioned Duncan or eliminated him as a suspect. At that same hearing, the prosecutor claimed the Polaroid photos couldn't be located, but also insisted that they were irrelevant since Johnson’s photo wasn't among them. The Polaroids were eventually found in Johnson's file.

The petition also said the prosecution had failed to disclose an activity sheet and handwritten notes that described an exculpatory interview with an eyewitness named Carlisely Blakeney. Alexander had told police that he saw Blakeney on the street at the time of the shooting and that Blakeney was talking with the gunmen and a girl who was with them. Three days after taking Alexander’s statement, detectives interviewed Blakeney. According to the undisclosed report, Blakeney told detectives that although he was highly intoxicated on the night of the shooting and didn’t remember much, he did recall “that the guys involved with killing Joe were not from the neighborhood.”

As part of its reinvestigation, the CIU interviewed the trial prosecutor. The CIU said, “Based on the prosecutor’s description of her practices, it is apparent that she did not possess or know about the suppressed evidence and that the police department did not provide that evidence to the District Attorney’s Office.”

On March 4, 2024, Commonwealth Judge Scott DiClaudio granted the petition and vacated Johnson’s convictions. The judge then granted the CIU motion to dismiss the charges. Johnson was released, having spent more than 32 years in prison from the date of his conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/28/2024
Last Updated: 3/28/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1990
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No