In Wyoming, we value integrity above all. We pride ourselves on doing the right thing. It’s the Wyoming way.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that the state has failed to do the right thing for Andrew Johnson.
In 1989, Johnson was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison. And that’s where he spent the next 24 years until DNA evidence proved Johnson was innocent and he was released from prison.
Andrew Johnson spent almost a quarter of a century in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was then released into the world with no marketable job skills, no resume to offer potential employers, no means of transportation, or a place to live. Not to mention the unimaginable emotional burden he must carry.
After all, he was deprived of irreplaceable time with his daughter, who was only 1 when he was sent to prison. He was deprived of saying goodbye to his mother before she died. He was deprived of over two decades worth of working experience. The state declared him innocent, but his punishment didn’t end when he walked out of the prison.
Wyoming has no program to provide compensation for people like Johnson. Lawmakers could have done the right thing and addressed the issue, but they have repeatedly failed to create a law that would right an unjust situation like this.
Johnson turned to the court for help, filing a lawsuit in 2017 against the city of Cheyenne. A judge dismissed that lawsuit because Johnson had previously filed a similar suit from prison, before he was found to be innocent. In other words, the suit was dismissed on purely procedural grounds.
Twice, Johnson has sought relief from the government that took away his liberty. Twice, he was rebuffed.
This is not justice. This is not doing the right thing. This is not the Wyoming way.
A few of Johnson’s friends have recently started an online effort aimed at helping him make ends meet. We’re encouraged by the effort of Wyomingites to take it upon themselves to make amends.
But the state of Wyoming wrongfully convicted and imprisoned him for 24 years. And it’s the state that needs to make things right.
Lawmakers have discussed implementing a program in Wyoming to give restitution to people who’ve been wrongfully convicted, but they’ve never seen the issue through. Think of all the frivolous bills introduced over the years, unnecessary legislation debated while a man struggled through a nearly impossible situation caused by our justice system.
Thirty-two states have compensation statutes for wrongful convictions. It’s time Wyoming joined those states and enacted policy to guarantee compensation for innocent people. We can start with Andrew Johnson.
We, as citizens of Wyoming, are all obligated to make this right. We can’t give Andrew Johnson 24 years of his life back. We can’t give him the pleasure of participation in his daughter’s childhood. We can’t give him more time with his mother. What we can give him is a fair chance at starting his life again, and that means compensation for every year we unjustly locked him up. We can give him affordable housing, access to education and job training, health care and psychological counseling. We can and should give him a chance to live what’s left of his life in peace and stability. We can show him compassion.
We can do the right thing. It’s the Wyoming way.