Prosecutor- DNA tests free man serving life sentence

Sunday, July 28, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- DNA testing on evidence long believed to have been destroyed exonerates a "horribly wronged" man who has spent nearly 18 years in prison in the sexual attack of a female college student, a prosecutor said Saturday.

Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said that as early as next week she could file court papers to free 47-year-old Larry Johnson, imprisoned since being sentenced in September 1984 to life plus 30 years for rape, sodomy, kidnapping and robbery.

"My heart just goes out to Mr. Johnson," said Joyce, who graduated from law school six years after Johnson's conviction and had no role in his criminal case. "There are no words I can say to express how much I regret that he was wrongfully convicted.

"Mr. Johnson has been horribly wronged. Absolutely, there is no way I can ever make this up to him."

Joyce said the preliminary DNA results have been sent back to the same police crime lab for confirmation, though "I'm confident the results are not going to change and will hold up."

Joyce plans to ask St. Louis police to reopen the case.

Johnson, imprisoned at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, was unreachable for comment. His St. Louis attorney did not immediately return telephone messages.

"I would imagine that if I were Mr. Johnson, it'd be really hard to be thanking anybody for what has happened," Joyce said. "But I'm really relieved and gratified to uncover this miscarriage of justice."

Johnson's hopes had appeared grim, given that prosecutors had thought evidence from his case long had been destroyed to clear room for items from newer cases. But when a pipe burst in February in a basement storage room at the Municipal Courts building, workers salvaging unsoaked evidence found bags from Johnson's case, Joyce said.

"We were thrilled to find this evidence," she said.

Johnson, of St. Louis, was sentenced in September 1984 on charges that he raped, sodomized and kidnapped a 20-year-old Saint Louis University student eight months earlier.

"The case was a pretty strong one at the time," Joyce said Friday, citing circumstantial evidence against Johnson and the victim's identifying him as her attacker.

When told of the DNA results, Joyce said "as you can understand, (the victim) is feeling a variety of emotions."

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project that has pushed for DNA tests in Johnson's case and other sexual-assault ones nationwide, did not immediately return telephone messages Saturday.

The decade-old Innocence Project has exonerated dozens of prisoners through post-conviction DNA testing.

Earlier this year, Scheck and an Innocence Project attorney asked St. Louis judges to order new DNA tests for Johnson and a handful of other men serving long prison terms on rape convictions dating to a time when DNA testing was unavailable. DNA testing was not widespread before 1994, Joyce has said.

"It's my job to make sure somebody who is innocent isn't sitting in prison," Joyce said in May, noting that DNA tests are not always conclusive. But "who knows? We might find some people who are exonerated."

A Missouri law, effective since August 2001, lets convicted rapists seek new DNA tests if the technology wasn't available at the time of their trial.

Joyce said she is developing a plan to review about 1,400 old cases of rape, murder and assault to pinpoint where new DNA tests would be warranted. She said that project, with help from volunteer law students, would study cases that arose before Jan. 1, 1994, and in which people convicted remain in prison. DNA testing was not widespread before 1994, she said.

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