Advocacy Update: Innocence Project Client Wins Reprieve from Life Sentence

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project at Temple Law School has announced the immediate release of their client, Lorenzo Johnson, after serving 22 years of a life sentence.

On July 11, 2017, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro agreed to allow Lorenzo Johnson, convicted of murder in Harrisburg in 1997, to walk away from his life sentence after pleading no contest to third-degree murder while maintaining his innocence of the crime. The deal ends a legal saga that has gone through state and federal courts, and seen Johnson’s release by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals only to have the United States Supreme Court order his return to prison. The parties were preparing for an extended hearing when the deal came about. Since his arrest, Johnson has always maintained he had nothing to do with the murder and, in fact, was home in New York when Mr. Williams was killed.

Attorney Michael Wiseman has represented Johnson for over 10 years, the majority of that time pro bono. It was Wiseman who, along with attorneys from the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, won Johnson’s release in 2012 when the Third Circuit reversed his conviction. And it was also Wiseman who helped bring Johnson back to Pennsylvania 139 days later, when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and ordered him returned to incarceration. Johnson has remained imprisoned since, consistently proclaiming his innocence.

Wiseman is quick to point out that the Attorney General’s decision is a just outcome for the convoluted case. “We are grateful the Attorney General did not prolong the matter, and that we reached an agreement all parties are satisfied with. Although we firmly believe Lorenzo Johnson is an innocent man, we feel his release is an appropriate end to this sad and tragic saga.”

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has represented Mr. Johnson for the past two years, as well. Nilam A. Sanghvi, Legal Director for the Project, agrees the Attorney General’s actions deserve praise: “This is a resolution we could not have gotten under a different administration. It took a fresh look and commitment to doing justice for everyone – including Mr. Johnson – to achieve this outcome.”

Yet, Project Executive Director Marissa Bluestine sees an opportunity she hopes the Attorney General will seize. “As in any case where an outcome like this occurs there is the opening to do a root cause analysis of the entire investigation and prosecution. Often when those are done we find errors in our system exist that can be corrected so injustices do not continue to occur.”

Mr. Johnson plans to return to his home in New York, where he will live with his wife and family.