The Price of Innocence

Larry Johnson wants big bucks for a crime he never committed

When Larry Johnson left prison two years ago, after DNA testing proved he was innocent of a 1984 rape, the warden offered him a handshake and a plane ticket home. Now the St. Louis man wants $200 million from those who locked him up for eighteen years for a crime he did not commit.

In a lawsuit filed July 29 in federal court in St. Louis, the 50-year-old Johnson claims the city of St. Louis, the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, two former St. Louis police officers and a former city prosecutor manufactured and withheld evidence to build their case against him -- or "at a minimum, acted with reckless indifference toward the truth."

The lawsuit elaborates: "To accomplish the fraudulent prosecution and conviction of Johnson, the Defendants trampled on numerous constitutional rights, including the right to due process, the right not to be arrested without probable cause, and the right not to be accused and tried on the basis of evidence that was fraudulently procured and intentionally or recklessly fabricated."

Larry Johnson spent  eighteen years behind bars.
Jennifer Silverberg
Larry Johnson spent eighteen years behind bars.

Johnson's Kansas City attorney, Cheryl Pilate, says former inmates in other states have won large settlements for their wrongful convictions. Johnson, who was sentenced to life in prison, is the first inmate exonerated by DNA evidence to sue in Missouri. Pilate works with the New York City-based Innocence Project, which has used DNA evidence to win the freedom of 148 inmates nationwide since 1989.

If Missouri had financially compensated him -- as other states have done for prisoners who are cleared by DNA -- Johnson says he probably would not have sued. "[Prisoners] have to pay for the crimes they commit," he explains. "Well, the state has made a mistake itself, so why shouldn't the state reimburse me for the wrong they have done?"

On a January night twenty years ago, an African-American man forced his way into the car of a Saint Louis University student and raped her at knifepoint in the 3700 block of Lindell Boulevard, not far from Johnson's home. After the attack the victim described the rapist to former St. Louis police officer Justine Goldak, who sketched a composite. According to the victim, her attacker was about five-foot-five, 165 pounds and "clean shaven" with a "pudgy face."

Goldak proceeded to show the victim 140 mug shots of potential suspects, including a photograph of Johnson, even though he had a moustache and weighed only 128 pounds. Police had written information on the bottom of the photographs, including the criminal records and addresses of the men pictured.

Johnson had been paroled in 1982 after serving half of a fifteen-year sentence for rape. In 1983 a St. Louis jury had acquitted him of rape in another case. Later that year police had investigated Johnson for assault but never filed charges.

According to the lawsuit, "The victim's identification of Johnson was influenced and, indeed, engineered by two police officers -- Defendants [Justine] Goldak and [Pamela] LaRose -- who steered the victim toward Johnson despite his utter lack of resemblance to the attacker."

Neither Goldak nor LaRose, who both left the department in the late 1980s, could be reached for comment.

Hours after Johnson's photo was flagged, police arrested him. Although he offered an alibi, it was never investigated, the lawsuit claims. With Officer LaRose at her side, the victim picked Johnson in a lineup, although, according to the lawsuit, she told police she was "not 100 percent sure." She said none of the men in the lineup sounded like her attacker.

At some point, former assistant circuit attorney Nels Moss Jr. told Goldak to alter the composite drawing by adding a moustache, according to the lawsuit. Moss did not return phone calls.

"I have never heard of a composite sketch being modified after somebody has been identified," says Iowa State University professor Gary Wells, who has researched the validity of eyewitness identification for 30 years and contributed to a U.S. Department of Justice training manual on the subject.

The lawsuit claims that adding the moustache to the composite bolstered the victim's identification of Johnson, "either before the lineup or before [the victim's] testimony before the grand jury." The victim later identified Johnson at his trial but said he appeared to have "lost weight," the lawsuit states.

In his years of research, Wells has found that police officers often lead victims to a particular suspect either intentionally or inadvertently through the power of suggestion. In this case the victim may have identified several potential suspects but heard positive reinforcement when she pointed to Johnson. Wells says it also is possible that Johnson, by coincidence, resembled the real perpetrator.

Soon after the attack, bodily fluid secreted by the rapist was collected from the victim's body and her clothes. Twenty years ago that evidence could not be analyzed for DNA. It could, however, have been tested for blood type, a routine method that might have excluded Johnson as a suspect.

According to the lawsuit, the evidence was either never examined for blood type or, if it was, that information was not revealed to Johnson's attorneys.

In 2000 the Innocence Project sued the office of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce to compel the analysis of DNA evidence in Johnson's case. When testing revealed that Johnson could not have been the attacker, the case was reopened and the DNA was checked against a national database.

So far there have been no matches, says Ed Postawko, St. Louis assistant circuit attorney. But a new law that requires all state inmates to supply a DNA sample could potentially solve the case if the attacker is in a state prison on other charges.

Learning the true identity of the attacker could also help Johnson's case, if the man does not look like Johnson. "If it wasn't coincidental resemblance, there was something in the procedure -- either suggestive behavior on the part of the person administering the lineup of photos or something within the photos themselves -- that led the witness to Johnson," Gary Wells says.

According to Innocence Project data, two thirds of the inmates who have been cleared by DNA were convicted because eyewitnesses identified the wrong person. After traumatic events, victims' memories are often inaccurate, especially when the assailant is of a different race. In this case the victim was white and the attacker was black.

Since returning to St. Louis in 2002, Johnson has struggled to find work and is still living with his aunt. Prior to going to prison, he worked in a dry-cleaning plant.

"A lot of people out here still treat me like I committed the crime," Johnson says.

Johnson had hoped the Missouri Legislature would compensate him for the years he spent in prison. A bill passed last spring will pay inmates who are exonerated by DNA up to $18,000 a year for every year they are wrongfully incarcerated. Johnson is ineligible, though, because the compensation is not retroactive.

In an e-mailed statement, State Representative Richard Byrd of Kirkwood says Johnson and two other Missourians who were exonerated may be compensated "if it appears that there will be funds available."

The St. Louis city counselor's office is reviewing Johnson's lawsuit and will likely ask the court to dismiss the city from the case, says Carl W. Yates III, associate city counselor. He asserts that the city does not oversee the police department or the circuit attorney's office.

In the past, courts have shielded prosecutors from civil lawsuits brought by plaintiffs who were wrongfully convicted. However, Johnson's attorney says wrongful conviction lawsuits are a new field and courts have recently ruled that prosecutors are not immune when they act as investigators. According to the lawsuit, "Throughout the investigation, prosecutor Moss acted not as a prosecutor but as an investigator."

A study conducted by the nonprofit watchdog group Center for Public Integrity found that appellate courts cited Moss for misconduct 24 times. In seven cases judges actually reversed convictions Moss had won because of prosecutorial misconduct.

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