MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A district attorney in Alabama says a black man who has spent two decades on death row should get a new trial amid questions about the fairness of his 1998 murder conviction.
Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr on Friday filed a brief supporting a new trial for Toforest Johnson who was convicted of the murder of Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff William Hardy.
Carr wrote that he took no position on Johnson’s innocence or guilt but said there are concerns about his trial. He wrote those include that a key witness was paid a $5,000 reward, a fact not mentioned at trial, and alibi witnesses place Johnson in another part of town at the time of the shooting. Carr said the original lead prosecutor had also expressed concerns about the case.
“A prosecutor’s duty is not merely to secure convictions, but to seek justice,” the brief stated. “It is the district attorney’s position that in the interest of justice, Mr. Johnson, who has spent more than two decades on death row, be granted a new trial.”
Carr, who was elected in 2018, was not the district attorney during Johnson’s trial.
Hardy was killed after being shot twice in the head while working off-duty security at a hotel in July 1995.
Johnson was later sentenced to death for the slaying. He has maintained his innocence and said he was at a nightclub at the time of the shooting.
At Johnson’s trial, Violet Ellison testified she eavesdropped on an August 1995 telephone conversation and that she heard Johnson say he and a friend shot Hardy.
Ty Alper, an attorney for Johnson, on Friday, said he was grateful to Carr for taking a look at the case.
“We’ve long known anyone who engages in a review of the case will conclude that Mr. Johnson did not receive a fair trial,” Alper said in a telephone interview.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 ordered a new hearing to take place on Johnson’s claim of suppressed evidence.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Teresa T. Pulliam in March denied Johnson’s request for a new trial. Pulliam said Johnson’s attorneys had not established Ellison was motivated by the financial reward or that prosecutors knew about it.
The case is currently before the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office had no comment on the development, spokesman Mike Lewis wrote in an email.