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 federal judge has dismissed a civil rights lawsuit filed by a Wyoming man who spent nearly 24 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

U.S. District Court of Wyoming Judge Scott Skavdahl dismissed Andrew Johnson’s suit last week, citing numerous legal reasons. The most important factor was Skavdahl’s finding that many of the claims included in the suit had been brought up in previous lawsuits filed by Johnson and dismissed by prior judges. Legal standards mandate that issues generally cannot be relitigated once a judge has already made a decision on them or, more simply, plaintiffs can’t file two suits with the same claims.

Johnson had sued the former Cheyenne police officers who conducted the investigation, as well as the city itself.

Skavdahl did express compassion for Johnson’s “unfortunate conviction and imprisonment,” as he described it in his order dismissing the suit. In 1989, a jury found Johnson guilty of breaking into an acquaintance’s home and raping her. Johnson spent the next 24 years in prison for the crime before a DNA analysis of semen samples taken from the scene caused prosecutors to drop the charges against him in 2013.

The prosecutors then declined to re-try the case, and a judge later declared Johnson innocent. The semen examined as part of the rape kit matched that of the woman’s fiance at the time.

When Johnson was released from prison, he had no money, no job and no car, and he owed child support. As the first person in the state whose charges were dropped after conviction due to DNA evidence, there was little precedent for him to follow while reclaiming his life. There is little recourse for Johnson to pursue compensation for his time behind bars outside of a civil suit. Bills that would guide state compensation for the wrongfully convicted were introduced in 2014 and 2015 but ultimately failed.

Johnson sued Cheyenne and a number of its former police officers in April, alleging the officers failed to properly investigate the crime and that the city did not adequately train the police.

The suit claimed that investigators withheld crime scene photos, lied under under oath and generally did not conduct a thorough investigation.

But the federal judge determined that Johnson had already attempted to sue the officers and the city on those claims. Skavdahl cited two federal suits from 1991 and 1992, both of which were dismissed with prejudice by other judges. Others affirmed those dismissals on appeal. Johnson filed and litigated those suits without the help of an attorney.

“Plaintiff’s present claims were, or could have been, the subject of previously issued final judgments from this same District Court,” Skavdahl wrote in his order. “Therefore, his present action is barred by res judicata.”

Johnson’s attorneys immediately filed a request that Skavdahl set aside the decisions in the earlier matters so that the current suit could proceed, stating that it would be a “grave miscarriage of justice” to deny him the right to seek compensation for his wrongful conviction.

“To refuse Mr. Johnson the right to seek redress — in the face of these events — is to say that the objective truth can be completely ignored in favor of a technical and now demonstrably inapplicable legal construct called “res judicata,” the request states. “That is not fairness, by any definition. That is, instead, in the words of the United States Supreme Court, a grave miscarriage of justice.”

Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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Star-Tribune reporter Elise Schmelzer covers criminal justice.

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