Jefferson County DA Office Issues Report, Supports New Trial for Man on Death Row Since 1998

By Emeline Crowder 

JEFFERSON COUNTY, AL – The Office of the Jefferson County District Attorney this week, by the authority of District Attorney Danny Carr, submitted a report in support of Toforest Johnson’s—convicted of murder and on death row—Rule 32 petition for resentencing.

According to the report, the District Attorney’s Office believes “Mr. Johnson’s Rule 32 petition should be granted, and that a court of competent jurisdiction (should) grant said request,” adding, “a prosecutor’s duty is not merely to secure convictions, but to seek justice.”

On June 12, 2020, the report states the District Attorney’s office filed an amicus brief in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County claiming that “Toforest Johnson’s capital murder conviction and death sentence must be vacated in the interest of justice” because “the DA’s Office concluded that Johnson’s conviction was fundamentally unreliable and that the duty to seek justice required intervention in this case.”

On Jan. 1, 2021, the report states the DA’s Office launched its Conviction Review Unit, and explains with the establishment of the CRU, the office also “established a formal protocol for reviewing past convictions, including a protocol for creating reports upon completion of the review of a case.”

The report states because the CRU did not exist at the time of the DA’s review of Johnson’s case, “there was no official report produced at the time. However, the office is pleased to provide this concise summary of its investigation with detailed support for its conclusion that the conviction and death sentence of Toforest Johnson cannot stand.”

The report adds its conclusion is based on “a review of the entire prosecution and law enforcement file in this matter; trial and post-conviction transcripts; pleadings filed by the State and the defense; interviews with trial prosecutors, defense and post-conviction counsel, and witnesses; recordings of witness interviews with investigators; and consultations with the victim’s family.”

The report asserts that one of the most significant reasons that Johnson’s case warranted “throughout investigation” was because Jeff Wallace, who was the original prosecutor, believes that Johnson should receive a new trial.

According to the report, Wallace “served as the lead prosecutor in this case for four years and knew the case better than anyone else. He sought and obtained Johnson’s conviction and death sentence over the course of two trials and many years.”

In light of new information which he did not previously know when he was prosecuting the case, the report claims Wallace supports a new trial for Johnson.

On July 19, 1995, the report recounts Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff William G. Hardy “was shot and killed in the parking lot of the Crown Sterling Suites hotel in Birmingham, Alabama.”

In connection with the murder, the report states “five men and one woman were arrested and charged,” with one of those five Johnson.  According to the report, Johnson’s first trial “ended in a mistrial when the jury could not agree on guilt. At Johnson’s second trial, in 1998, he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.”

According to the report, Johnson has maintained his innocence, “stating that at the time of the shooting he was at Tee’s Place, a nightclub across town.”

During the trial, the DA CRU report asserts “there was no physical evidence or eyewitness accounts tying him to the crime. Instead, the case centered on the testimony of one witness, Violet Ellison, who claimed she overheard Johnson confess to the murder on a three way phone call on which she was eavesdropping.”

However, according to the report, there were reasons to doubt Ellison’s credibility. The report states that her “testimony conflicts with the physical evidence, and the notes she claimed to have taken contemporaneously contained information she knew only from other sources.”

Since the trial, the report includes additional evidence to undermine Ellison’s credibility and the case against Johnson.

In 2008, according to the report, “multiple alibi witnesses submitted sworn, uncontested affidavits that they saw Johnson across town from the crime scene the night of Deputy Hardy’s murder.”

In addition to this, the report states that in 2019 “it was discovered that the State paid Ellison $5,000 for her testimony.”

The report asserts that “Johnson’s conviction is fundamentally unreliable is not based on any one fact. Instead, it is based on the totality of the facts.” The report continues that Johnson’s conviction depends completely on Ellison’s account, which has been contradicted.

The report adds the “conclusions concerning the facts discussed in this report are not influenced by the opinions of the public or those involved in the case. The findings are based on a thorough review of the evidence in this case. A thorough review and investigation of the entire case leaves no confidence in the integrity of Johnson’s conviction.”

The report concludes that when all the evidence is reviewed together, “the conviction and death sentence in this case cannot be justified or allowed to stand.”

About The Author

Emeline is a third year undergraduate at UC Davis, studying International Relations and French. She is passionate about law, the criminal justice system and international politics, and hopes to pursue a career in diplomacy in the future. In her free time, Emeline loves to read, craft and hike.

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