A man who was convicted of rape in 1989 and later released due to DNA testing is now suing the city of Cheyenne, alleging that its officers withheld evidence that led to his conviction and failed to properly investigate the case.
A Laramie County jury convicted Andrew Johnson of first-degree sexual assault and aggravated burglary in 1989 for allegedly raping a woman in her apartment. 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.
In the suit filed Monday, Johnson’s attorneys allege that police officers either purposefully withheld or recklessly lost about 20 crime scene photos that could have been used in Johnson’s defense. Because the photos were not given to prosecutors, Johnson’s defense attorney also did not have access to them.
“This case is the most profound tragedy in the history of Wyoming’s legal system,” Bob Schuster, Johnson’s attorney, said Thursday. “The loss of 24 years of someone’s life is just an unfathomable loss. That can never be regained. This should never happen again.”
No attorney has made an official entry of appearance on behalf of the defendants, according to court records. Cheyenne’s city attorney, Sylvia Hackl, declined to comment on the substance of the suit and said that the city sent the claim to the Wyoming Association of Risk Management, a self-insurance pool of Wyoming communities and counties. She said that it’s likely that attorneys with the association could handle the suit on behalf of the city and the officers.
Potential exculpatory evidence
The woman told police that she and Johnson were at her apartment before going out to the bars the night of June 10, 1989. She eventually went home after becoming very intoxicated and left Johnson at the bar. The woman told police that Johnson later returned to her apartment and raped her.
Police testified at the trial that they responded to the apartment and found Johnson’s driver’s license, which initially linked him to the alleged crime. They said that the woman initially identified her alleged assailant as “A.J.” and she later confirmed the identity after being shown the found license.
Johnson said he had left the license in the apartment earlier in the night before going to the bars.
But the suit alleges that one of the first officers on scene lied under oath about where he found the driver’s license and that the woman hadn’t identified Johnson before being shown the I.D. The attorneys wrote that the officer was “corruptly influencing” the woman when he showed her the license.
Johnson’s attorneys also state in the suit that it’s not known whether 20 missing film negatives or photos were misplaced, purposely destroyed or lost. They said the photos could have helped show Johnson was innocent at the time of the trial.
“At that time, the Cheyenne Police Department failed to have in place and/or to monitor and enforce any customs, policies, procedures, or practices to document, log and effectively preserve all first-responder crime scene photos and other forensic photos, thereby allowing and causing one or more of its personnel to launder and suppress some crime scene film and photos taken by one of the crime scene original responders,” the suit states.
The suit also alleges that the lead detective on the case did a poor job investigating. Johnson’s attorneys said in the suit that the detective did not record his first interview with Johnson or, if it was recorded, the tape was lost or destroyed. They also stated that investigators did not corroborate the fiance’s alibi and failed to recognize conflicting information from the alleged victim.
Finally, the suit also alleges that the woman planted a pair of Johnson’s eyeglasses in the apartment and reported that she found them a few days later. The glasses were later used as evidence that Johnson committed the crime.
Poor training, faulty policies
Johnson’s attorneys also allege that the city is liable for the faulty investigation because it failed to properly train the officers and because the department’s standard policies were not up to par.
At the time, the Cheyenne Police Department had weak policies regarding the collection, tracking and storage of crime scene evidence, the suit states. For the policies that did exist, the suit alleges that there was little to no enforcement that they were followed.
“All or some of the constitutionally inadequate written policies or procedures as alleged herein was a moving force in causing constitutional injury to Mr. Johnson as pled herein,” the suit states after listing seven specific policies that did not exist or were lacking.
Finally, the suit states that the lead detective and other officers involved weren’t trained to properly handle the case and that supervisors did not monitor the investigation closely enough.
“At all relevant times, (the city and specific officers) failed to train and/or supervise the CPD detectives adequately for and in the investigation of alleged interracial rape cases, as well as others,” the suit states. “The inadequacy and absence of such supervision and/or training did in fact result in violation of Mr. Johnson’s constitutional rights.”
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.
The suit states that Johnson is entitled to an unspecified amount of money for his “physical pain and suffering, emotional pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of earnings and earning capacity.”
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.
The suit was assigned to Judge Alan Johnson of the U.S. District Court of the District of Wyoming. The federal judge previously oversaw two other suits related to the case, according to court documents.