In December, 1971, a man was shot and killed in Roxbury. A known addict, Kenny Myers, was found at the scene. Shown a photo array, he initially identified a man as the shooter who turned out to be in jail. He then told police that it was Lawyer Johnson, accompanied by another unnamed man. In a probable cause hearing, he stated that he had named Johnson because he thought the police were going to blame him, (Myers). After the shooting, Myers had picked up the gun and hidden it, later revealing its location to the police. Despite the clear possibility of his involvement in the crime, he became the sole prosecution eyewitness rather than a suspect. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death.
Johnson’s conviction was appealed because the judge had improperly restricted his right to cross-examine Myers. However, during retrial in 1974, new witness Alvin Franklin testified that Johnson had confessed the crime to him when they shared a cell before the first trial. Also at this trial, eyewitness Gary Pritchett testified that he was at the scene and had seen Myers and two other men running away. Neither of the two other men was Johnson. Pritchett testified that he had volunteered this information to a police officer at the scene, who took notes, and his claim was corroborated by Myers’ testimony. However, the police officer had no record or recollection of this event. Despite Pritchett’s testimony, Johnson was again convicted, this time for second-degree murder with a life sentence. His conviction was based completely on the testimony of two highly unreliable witnesses, one a suspect in the case and the other a jailhouse snitch.
However, at a later hearing on a new trial motion, a new witness, Dawnielle Montiero, testified. Ten years old at the time she witnessed the murder, she stated that it was Myers alone who had done the shooting. She had called the police at the time, but had been told she couldn’t help them because of her age. In July 1981, the court granted Johnson a second new trial. The prosecution decided not to retry him, but Johnson was not freed until October 1982. Lawyer Johnson had spent ten years in prison, two of them on death row. No one else was prosecuted for the murder. In 1983, both houses of the Massachusetts legislature voted $75,000 compensation for Johnson but neither that bill, nor one filed on Johnson’s behalf in 1999, was finally approved. Finally in 2007 Johnson received $500,000 under Massachusetts’ wrongful conviction statute.
While in prison, Lawyer Johnson learned to paint. In August 2011, he sat down with NEIP staff and explained the meaning behind some of his works.
“If there’s no beauty, I have the ability to create beauty. Walpole prison is designed to be physically abusive. There’s no sun; it’s all concrete and steel. There is no kind of creative outlet in terms of environmental stimuli. It is designed to feed us with negative thoughts and negative forces; it creates oppression. We became a product of them saying we were animals. We became animals. Most of my paintings derived from my need to create beauty. This is what I did when I was in prison.