CHEYENNE -- When Andrew Johnson realized he would be released on bond Wednesday after nearly 24 years of incarceration, he had one pressing concern for his supporters. Motioning up and down at his orange-striped prison garb to Rocky Mountain Innocence Center advocates, he worried, “In this?”
“We said, ‘Don’t worry, we have you covered,’” said Jennifer Hare Salem, executive director of the innocence center. “’You’re going to look good.”’
A few weeks earlier, board members at the innocence center had pitched in to equip Johnson with all his sartorial needs upon his release.
“Everyone was really excited about it,” Salem said. “We wanted him to walk out with the dignity that he deserves.”
Shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday, Johnson took his first step from the Laramie County Jail onto the slushy streets of Cheyenne in a meticulously tailored suit, a powder blue tie and brown boots. His first words outside were, “It’s cold.”
A day earlier, Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell ordered a retrial for a 1989 Cheyenne rape case that landed Johnson a life sentence in prison. Newly tested DNA evidence proved he wasn't a match to the sperm found in the victim’s rape kit.
Despite the promising exculpatory evidence, Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar didn't call for Johnson’s release, and instead allowed the judge to decide if Johnson should receive a retrial. Campbell set a $10,000 bond — one that his family was prepared to meet before a spring snowstorm shut down government buildings and shut in Johnson for one more night in jail.
Johnson’s former wife, Annette, two attorneys and a nephew met him at the Laramie County Jail. The group made jokes and talked business and the day’s plans before leaving.
His first meal, he told the Star-Tribune a few hours later, wasn’t really a meal.
“We went to — what was the name of that place?”
“Starbucks,” offered Elizabeth Fasse from the innocence center, Johnson’s lead attorney on the case.
“I had a cookie about this big,” Johnson said, encircling his hands around an imaginary dinner plate. “And a coffee … it was pretty powerful.”
Johnson’s new-found freedom comes with a substantial caveat. While out on bond, he has been ordered to not leave Laramie County until the retrial has concluded or another decision has been reached. He will be living in Cheyenne with his younger sister, Sharon Kramer, for the time being. Plans to make his Mecca pilgrimage — he converted to Islam while in prison — will have to wait.
Despite decades of failures in appeals, Johnson is confident this retrial will be different.
But his confidence has failed him before. Johnson said he was confident during his 1989 trial that he would be found innocent.
“I thought [the trial] was going in my favor, because I knew there was no evidence that I had committed a crime,” he said Wednesday. “The jury deliberated for exactly 20 minutes.”
Even the sheriff at the time was shocked at the rapid turnaround, Johnson said.
“He said, ‘Well, they’ll find you not guilty.’”
After his conviction and imprisonment, Johnson said he worked his way through the appeals system until eventually coming across the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a nonprofit organization that works to exonerate innocent prisoners in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.
Johnson’s is the first DNA-based retrial ordered in Wyoming.
The center workers helped him to push forward even when he wanted to ditch them, he said.
“They came down to see me when I got to that point,” he said. “They said, ‘You can’t get rid of us.” These things take time, they told him.
Johnson said he always tried to project an optimistic image to his family, which had assumed he would be out much earlier. He constantly wrote letters to siblings — he is the oldest of six — and was reprimanded if too much time went by between correspondences.
Shortly after he went to prison, Johnson married his girlfriend, Annette, with his family and hers standing by. He stressed that the two met in community college, before he was incarcerated.
“It wasn’t through one of those pen pal programs,” he said.
While Johnson was in prison, Annette and his adopted daughter, Angela, moved to Rawlins to be closer to him. His heart broke when Angela would visit, he said. She would repeatedly ask when he was coming home.
“I’d say, ‘Soon,’” he said. “And it rode for a while. But eventually she’d start asking, ‘When is soon?'”
Johnson said the couple divorced after about 16 years of marriage, but he added she will always be in his life
On Friday, Johnson was granted a brief reprieve from incarceration to pay his respects at his mother’s funeral. It was there that he met Angela’s 6-year-old son, his grandson, for the first time. This time, the promises he made were just within reach.
“I said, “Come here little man,’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I’m your grandpappy.’ I told him who I was and he got this smile on his face.
“I said, ‘Now stay strong for me,'” he continued. “It’s a really warm feeling that he knows he can come to me.
“He’s gonna be all right.”