After serving nine years of a 38-year sentence for a murder he did not commit, Bobby Johnson was released from prison on Friday.
The year was 2006, and Johnson, aged 16, was brought in for questioning regarding the murder of Herbert Fields, a 70-year old Newhallville resident. Kwame Wells-Jordan, Johnson’s friend who was 14 at the time, was also picked up for the same crime, but the two boys had very different fates. Both were accused of murder, falsely told by detectives that there was forensic evidence against them and pressured to confess. But at the police station, Wells-Jordan refused to confess and was escorted away by his aunt, Julia Sykes, while Johnson was pressured to confess by being told that he would never see his family again and be subject to the death penalty.
Wells-Jordan’s defense attorney, Diane Polan, fought the charges in court, and Wells-Jordan was acquitted. Johnson, however, had confessed, and his lawyer failed to investigate further in an effort to clear his name. Johnson plead guilty in exchange for a 38-year sentence, rather than taking his chances in court. After five years working on Johnson’s behalf, the Connecticut Innocence Project and defense attorney Kenneth Rosenthal helped bring justice to Johnson and his family this past Friday.
“This is like the perfect storm,” Rosenthal said. “Police officers who misuse their power in strong-arming a confession, followed by a prosecutor who didn’t do anything to look at the evidence that they had, as well as not turning over exculpatory evidence about the misconduct, and then you have a defense lawyer who didn’t do anything … and then you have a court system that allows this to happen.”
Rosenthal said the two New Haven detectives who worked the Fields case — Michael Quinn and Clarence Willoughby — claimed to have a 100 percent solvability rate and prided themselves on rapidly closing murder investigations.
However, according to the petition for writ of habeas corpus, submitted by Rosenthal, both detectives had a history of corruption, including fabricating police documents and stealing funds used for policemen to access confidential informants during investigations. In Johnson’s case, the detectives claimed that information from a confidential informant had provided them with the justification needed to bring Johnson in for questioning. At the time that the suspect was being prosecuted, no one disclosed any of this exculpatory evidence to Johnson or his council.
Meanwhile, forensic evidence released during the course of the most recent investigation linked two others — Larry Mabery and Richard “Bo-Bo” Benson — with Fields’ murder. According to the petition, a .45 caliber semi-automatic recovered from Mabery matched the gun used to kill Fields, and a “conclusive” match of Benson’s right palm was lifted from Fields’ car.
Johnson’s confession, however, was enough to dissuade the two detectives from pursuing potential other suspects in the case.
Johnson spent years pursuing his case through typical legal channels, but it wasn’t until Rosenthal brought the case to Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Leonard Boyle that progress was made. An investigation spearheaded by the State’s Attorney Office led to the hearing last Friday.
Two lawyers close to the case offered high praise for both the defense and the prosecution.
“It seemed like the perfect case for Ken [Rosenthal] because it was a case that required a tremendous amount of investigation and someone who was never going to say ‘This is impossible.’ And that’s Ken,” said Darcy McGraw, head of the Connecticut Innocence Project.
Rosenthal praised New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington for “exercis[ing] his power responsibly” and filing the motion to set aside the conviction.
Now Johnson is busy trying to get back to life as a civilian. He is working towards obtaining his driver’s license and other forms of identification. He does not have great job opportunities, McGraw told the News. But she did note that Johnson has a “very supportive” family that could prove critical in helping him get back on his feet.
As Johnson left the New Haven Superior Courthouse, he was surrounded by family and greeted by cheers. He smiled as he talked about looking forward to spending time with his family.
“You see how crazy these people are,” Johnson told the crowd.
Correction: Sept. 8
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Johnson has great job opportunities when, in fact, he said he does not.