A Wyoming man freed after spending nearly a quarter century in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is still struggling to make ends meet. Now, his friends are trying to provide the financial help that the state has so far failed to do.
Andrew Johnson was convicted of a 1989 rape and sentenced to life in prison. He spent almost 24 years there. In 2008, state legislators passed a law allowing prisoners to petition for post-conviction DNA testing.
Johnson applied for the testing and the rape kit performed on Johnson’s accuser contained her then-fiance’s semen, not his. She had said at trial that she had not had sex with anyone during the time period of the alleged rape.
Although he was eventually freed from the sentence associated with his wrongful conviction, Johnson has not received restitution from the state for the two-plus decades he spent in prison. Wyoming is one of 18 states that does not pay restitution to people incarcerated for wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing.
Chris and Rebecca Merrill, of Laramie, met Johnson shortly after his exoneration. Their interest in the first Wyoming man to be exonerated on DNA evidence led them to help him financially, Chris Merrill said. After developing a friendship over the course of four years, the Merrills started an online fundraiser to help Johnson with his bills.
“We really believe his society, and that’s us, … owes him a debt,” Chris Merrill said by phone Thursday.
“I’m part of it.”
Upon reading a Star-Tribune article chronicling Johnson’s financial woes after his release, Chris and Rebecca Merrill decided they wanted to help him. The couple contacted Johnson’s Rocky Mountain Innocence Center lawyer, Jennifer Hare Salem, who put them in touch with another lawyer, and eventually Johnson.
The couple bought Johnson a used Toyota, ensuring he would no longer have to walk to doctor’s appointments or work.
They have stayed in touch since. Chris Merrill said he talks to Johnson by phone on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Merrill, who worked for the Star-Tribune from 2008 to 2009, said that although Johnson is working, “it’s nothing to get ahead.”
Chris Merrill said that, as a citizen of Wyoming, he owes Johnson a debt. Johnson’s society wronged him and Merrill said he’s “part of it.”
After realizing there was only so much they could do for Johnson, the couple started an online fundraiser in an attempt to make restitution on behalf of Wyoming citizens. The fundraiser went live on Wednesday night and had raised $1,950 for Johnson by Friday afternoon. The fundraiser goal was set at $100,000, or which would equate to roughly $4,000 for each year of his incarceration.
“When the government fails to do the right thing,” Chris Merrill said, “It’s up to private citizens to pick up the slack.”
Legislation that would have provided restitution to wrongfully convicted people has been proposed in Wyoming but has never become law. A 2014 version of the legislation would have provided up to $500,000 to people who were wrongfully incarcerated and then exonerated through DNA evidence. The legislature’s two chambers failed to come to a consensus in that year’s budget session.
Johnson sued the city of Cheyenne in April, alleging police officers had failed to properly investigate the case and withheld evidence, which led to his conviction. In July, a federal judge ruled in favor of the city. Appeals filed in the following four months have not yet yielded a victory for Johnson.
Johnson said through Merrill that his attorneys had advised him not to speak to the press, given the ongoing appeals process. A Friday call to Johnson’s Cheynne attorney, Aaron Lyttle, went unanswered.
The fundraiser can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/westandwithandrew.