District attorneys around the U.S. are reviewing past convictions for evidence that they were wrongful. Unfortunately, there are many situations that can lead to wrongful convictions.
Recently, the DA for Jefferson County, Alabama, reviewed Toforest Johnson’s conviction and decided he deserves a new trial. Toforest was convicted in 1998 of killing a sheriff’s deputy and was sentenced to death. He has always maintained his innocence, and things look hopeful for his case.
Toforest’s case was high-profile. There were no witnesses and few clues to be had. The state of Alabama offered $5,000 for information that would lead to an arrest and conviction. That reward led to a tip from a teenager who fingered Toforest.
Later, that teenager admitted she was motivated by the reward money. She changed her story dozens of times, according to NPR.
Toforest wouldn’t have even been a suspect if it weren’t for that teenager’s lie. He would not have been convicted if not for a jailhouse informant who claimed to have overheard someone named Toforest admitting he had shot a deputy.
In Toforest’s first trial, defense witnesses established an alibi and there was a hung jury. Also, the prosecution changed its theory of the case several times. It was only in his second trial that the jailhouse informant testified, and in that second trial, Toforest’s court-appointed attorney failed to call the alibi witnesses.
Moreover, the prosecution never revealed that the jailhouse informant received the $5,000 reward.
“There was no evidence pointing to him in the first place,” says Toforest’s daughter. “It really opened my eyes to the fact that, unfortunately, the justice system is not equal.”
Former prosecutors, judges submit friend-of-the-court brief
It’s not just Toforest’s family and the Jefferson County DA who question the conviction. Former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, a death penalty proponent, looked into the case and was stunned by the lack of evidence. He calls letting the case stand “unconscionable.”
He and other former federal and state prosecutors submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the appeals court hearing Toforest’s case.
Several former judges, including two former chief justices of the Alabama Supreme Court, also filed a brief. They called the case a “reprehensible miscarriage of justice that may otherwise lead to the execution of a likely innocent man.”
Other briefs were submitted by legal scholars, faith-based groups, public defenders and the criminal defense bar.
Nevertheless, Alabama’s attorney general is fighting to keep Toforest on death row.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 2,768 people have been exonerated since 1989. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 185 people have been exonerated from death row since 1973 – nine from Alabama alone.