Despite exculpatory DNA evidence, officials say Andrew Johnson, the man serving a life sentence for a 1989 sexual assault conviction, will not be released just yet.
“The test results do not dispose of the case,” Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar said in a statement Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center filed a motion for a new trial on Johnson’s behalf. Newly conducted testing by the Wyoming State Crime Lab revealed Johnson was not the man whose DNA was found in the victim’s rape kit.
Johnson was convicted of first-degree sexual assault and aggravated burglary after a woman identified him as the man who attacked her in her apartment. DNA testing was only beginning to make appearances in courtrooms at the time, and blood tests in the Johnson case came back inconclusive.
Because of a prior criminal record, Johnson was designated a habitual offender and sentenced to life in prison. He has consistently maintained his innocence.
Homar said although the new results certainly favor Johnson, “we must look at the totality of the evidence as a whole.”
In an interview with the Star-Tribune on Wednesday, Homar declined to comment on the specifics of the case but said there is “lots of other evidence.” Officials are now treating the case as an open investigation, he said.
Homar said investigating a two-decades-old case poses even greater difficulties than a typical sexual assault investigation. For one, the lead detective on the case died a few years ago.
However, Homar said he doubts there will be much objection to Johnson at least receiving a new trial. He said he will look over the old transcripts and evidence and hopes to make a swift response to the motion.
“This evidence is something that a jury should have,” he said.
Homar additionally has the option to stipulate for exoneration.
The district attorney’s response was consistent with Homar’s previous support of the case, said Innocence Center Managing Attorney Elizabeth Fasse.
“In these cases, the judicial process has to work itself out,” she said. “We’re very thankful to Scott Homar for his participation in the case, and pushing it forward as quickly as possible.”
Homar, she said, was one of the Wyoming prosecutors who helped enact the 2008 state law that guarantees qualified prisoners the right to receive post-conviction DNA testing. The Laramie County District Attorney’s Office additionally helped support Johnson’s original motion for the test.
“Nobody, especially prosecutors, wants to see someone in prison who shouldn’t be,” Homar said in a previous interview. “That’s our main duty as prosecutors. There is no harm in getting this evidence tested.”
If Johnson is freed, he will be the first in Wyoming to benefit from the 2008 law, and the first Wyoming success story for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, which represents incarcerated clients in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Johnson would be preceded by three others who were exonerated for crimes in Utah.
Fasse said the Innocence Center has experienced nothing but positive relations with prosecutors across Wyoming. The same can’t be said for Nevada and Utah, she said.
“In Wyoming, our experience is that prosecutors have been very willing to work with us,” she said.