There will be no retrial for Andrew Johnson, the Cheyenne man who was convicted for a 1989 rape and spent nearly 24 years incarcerated. He is now officially the first man in Wyoming to be exonerated due to DNA evidence, his attorneys say.
On Friday, Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar announced that all charges against Johnson are now dismissed.
“There is insufficient evidence to proceed,” Homar said Friday in a press release. “This is not an exoneration. There is certainly evidence that weighs against Mr. Johnson in this matter ... evidence that was used to convict him at trial in 1989.”
In the 24 years since the assault, physical evidence has been destroyed and the lead investigator passed away, Homar’s press release states.
In February, Johnson became the first beneficiary of a 2008 Wyoming law that guarantees post-conviction DNA testing for qualified inmates. Johnson was let out on bond in April after testing revealed he was not the donor of DNA evidence found in the rape kit.
Johnson’s attorney, Liz Fasse from the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, said she was pleased that the charges were dropped but said not calling it an exoneration was a complete misstatement of the law.
“I think what [the District Attorney’s Office] is trying to do is weasel out of saying Andrew’s innocent,” Fasse said. “It’s fine for them to say they have their doubts personally, but Andrew has been officially exonerated.”
Fasse said on Friday, Homar filed a motion to dismiss all charges, and a judge signed an order.
“Wyoming law states that I have certain options,” Homar told the Star-Tribune when asked for clarification about the “exoneration” designation. Homar said he had the option to stipulate for exoneration, and he did not.
“They can call it what they want, I guess,” he said of Johnson’s attorneys.
n n n
In the early morning hours of June 10, 1989, Johnson’s accuser told Cheyenne police that she and Johnson had been at her apartment earlier the previous evening and then went bar-hopping together late into the night. At some point she decided she was too intoxicated to continue and, with Johnson remaining inside the bar, she drove herself home.
The woman told police that Johnson returned to her apartment a short while later, banged on the front door, and proceeded to attack her. Johnson’s wallet and eyeglasses additionally linked him to the crime scene, but he said he left them there when he was at the apartment earlier.
Johnson was convicted of first-degree sexual assault and aggravated burglary, in large part due to the victim’s account in the trial.
The alleged victim has said she had not engaged in intercourse with anyone aside from her rapist — whom she identified as Johnson — for two weeks before the attack. DNA testing proved that the sperm found in the rape kit belonged to her then-fiancé.
At the April hearing, Homar did not endorse an unconditional exoneration for Johnson. Homar detailed his concerns about how much time semen could remain in the vaginal cavity and said it was unclear from the beginning whether the assailant ejaculated.
At the hearing, Homar said the penetration during the attack was “quite minimal,” and, speaking for the victim, said she was “certain he did not ejaculate.”
Homar did not request a new trial and said he would leave it up to the judge.
Fasse at the time argued that several of the
300 DNA-based exonerations throughout the country involved witness misidentification.
“DNA does not lie,” Fasse said at the. “DNA wins out every time.”
Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell determined there was sufficient evidence for a new trial and gave Johnson a $10,000 cash or commercial bond while he awaited proceedings. Johnson was out the next day.
Cheyenne attorney Aaron Lyttle and the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Innocence Center have been assisting Johnson with his case for the past several years.
Johnson’s is a landmark case in Wyoming. Troy Willoughby is the only person listed under Wyoming cases in the National Registry of Exonerations, but Willoughby’s case differs from Johnson’s in that Willoughby was retried for murder and found not guilty. Representatives from the Wyoming Supreme Court and Wyoming Department of Corrections said they do not keep records of the state’s exonerations.
n n n
Johnson said he was walking into the Verizon store Friday morning when he got the call. He’d been expecting it for the past few weeks.
He said the District Attorney’s Office let the cat out of the bag when his attorneys attempted to file discovery on his behalf.
“They said, ‘What are you doing that for?’” Johnson recalled.
When the Star-Tribune spoke to Johnson Friday afternoon, he was filling out paperwork at the courthouse to get the money from his $10,000 bond back.
Johnson said he needs the money to help pay for his medical bills and his mother’s recent burial.
“The only savings I had were at the prison system, and that’s getting low,” he said.
Wyoming is currently one of 21 states that do not have a law that details if and how much compensation should be distributed to those who are exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
Legislators discussed the issue Thursday at the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee meeting in Lusk. The committee opted to sponsor a bill that would limit compensation at $75 a day, with $300,000 maximum.
For Johnson’s nearly
24 years of incarceration, this would amount to about $12,500 a year.
At the May meeting in Jackson, Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen admitted the payout was relatively low in comparison to other states.
On Thursday, Rocky Mountain Innocence Center Legal Director Jensie Anderson said any bill passed in the next session will not apply to Johnson retroactively.
Fasse said Johnson currently has two options. He can appeal to the state directly to try to get compensation or file a civil lawsuit against the state. There is no cap on the amount Johnson can seek in a civil case, but even a win won’t do much for his current financial situation, Fasse said.
“Civil suits can take years and years,” she said.
Johnson said his next step is to try to get some compensation for his lost years in one way or another, but the process is only in its preliminary stages.
“I really need the money right now,” he said. “I have no job, I have nothing.”