Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson is pictured with his former wife, Annette. Johnson became the first person in Wyoming to be exonerated by DNA testing. He spent more than 24 years in prison.

File | Star-Tribune

A year ago, things were looking up for Andrew Johnson.

Released from prison after serving 23 years on a 1989 conviction for rape, the Cheyenne man was the first beneficiary of a new state law that allowed convictions to be overturned in the event of new DNA evidence that proved their innocence.

In Johnson’s case, the DNA evidence directly countered the victim's testimony that, prior to the assault, she hadn't had sex with anyone for three weeks.

And so Johnson was freed. Then a bill that would have provided him – and anyone else exonerated on DNA evidence – up to $500,000 in compensation went sailing through the Legislature.

But at the last minute both that bill, as well as one that would have provided a road to exoneration based on new non-DNA evidence, failed in committee.

Members of the Senate refused to approve last-minute amendments to the bills. Those would have required convicted people to prove their innocence at new court hearings to have their records expunged, even if the prosecuting attorney agreed to drop the charges.

For those who supported the bills, their sudden deaths came as a shock. But they have not forgotten, and they’re hoping the bills will get another chance as the Legislature reconvenes.

“This is still legislation we’d like to pursue, regardless of Andrew Johnson’s situation,” said Aaron Lyttle.

He is the Cheyenne attorney who helped secure Johnson’s freedom in 2013.

“We do have a moral obligation to make sure compensation is available for anyone who is wrongly convicted,” he added.

The Salt Lake City-based Rocky Mountain Innocence Center was among the bills’ key supporters last year.

And while the bulk of the center’s work takes place in the courtroom, its vice president, Marla Kennedy, said legislators can expect to see Innocence Center lobbyists in the halls of the Capitol.

“We believe there was a majority of support for this legislation last year, and it was unfortunately derailed by a small number of people with motives we don’t understand,” Kennedy said.

“The people who supported the legislation last year, including sponsors and newcomers, have reached out to us. We are very confident the legislation will pass this year.

“They want to see compensational laws and basic innocence declaration laws for anyone who was wrongly convicted in Wyoming, whether they served one day in prison or 50 years.”

Jensie Anderson is the Innocence Center’s legal director. She said the non-DNA exoneration bill is of particular importance, since in 90 percent of criminal cases DNA is not a factor.

“The way the law in Wyoming stands now, if you are actually innocent of a crime, you can show that through DNA evidence,” Anderson said. “But if there’s no DNA in the case, then there’s no way to be released as an innocent person.”

The only exception, she said, is if the convicted person is able to show constitutional grounds for his or her exoneration, such as if their due process rights were violated.

But in many other circumstances, such as a witness misidentifying a suspect, the wrongfully convicted have no recourse.

“The most important part of our work is bringing people home, and we’ll do it any way that we can,” she said. “But it’s often these non-DNA innocence statutes that allow the person to come home.”

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