Lorenzo Johnson is serving a life sentence for a murder in Harrisburg he says he didn’t commit.
Johnson’s story has taken some interesting turns, as he was released from prison for about five months after a panel of federal judges found the evidence in his case insufficient. But, he was sent back to prison by the highest court in the land.
Now, he and his family are mounting a campaign to get him released once again, saying his case hinged on unreliable witnesses and police coercing and threatening witnesses into giving false testimony.
“I’m outraged because of what took place with me and what continues to take place with me,” said Johnson during a recent interview at the State Correctional Institute at Mahanoy.
Johnson’s story starts in December 1995.
At the time, the area of 14th and Market streets was popular among people from New York who would come to Harrisburg to deal drugs.
In the early hours of December 15, 1995, Tarajay Williams was shot and killed between two rowhomes in the 1400 block of Market Street.
Johnson was arrested months later, charged as an accomplice to Corey Walker, who was accused and eventually convicted as being the shooter.
During their trial, the jury was told about the events throughout the day that resulted in the murder. On the morning of December 14, Johnson, Walker and Victoria Doubs woke up, bought some marijuana and went to KFC to eat. While at the restaurant, Walker and Williams got into a fight over a drug debt. Later that night, an argument broke out at a nearby bar. Walker and Johnson left the bar with Williams, killing him soon after.
However, Johnson insists that story is not only wrong, but that he wasn’t even in Pennsylvania when the murder happened.
“They withheld evidence for 18 years that showed my innocence, witnesses, statements from other witnesses that could have exonerated me during trial,” said Johnson.
Johnson was convicted along with Walker and began serving his life sentence.
He appealed to various judges, with his conviction being upheld each time, including by the Pa. Superior Court.
In 2009, a three-judge panel for the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals heard his case. Two years after the judges heard oral arguments, they reached a decision that changed Johnson’s life once again.
In a split 2-1 decision, the judges wrote, “We have determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove Johnson’s specific intent to commit murder. The Superior Court unreasonably applied the standard governing when inferences may be relied upon to establish elements of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The decision meant Johnson would be released from prison after more than a decade behind bars.
He returned to his home in Yonkers, New York, where he got a job as a flagger at construction sites and started to rebuild his life.
His brother, Tyrone, recalled seeing him for the first time on the outside.
“I thought it was over. That was it. They finally saw what they should have seen 17 years ago,” said Tyrone Johnson.
Lorenzo reunited with lifelong friends as well.
“He didn’t get in one bit of trouble. He came out. He went to work. He got a job. He was working every day doing what he had to do and being around his family and friends, just trying to do the right thing, staying out of trouble,” said Brian O’Shea.
Lorenzo also found love, beginning a relationship with Tazza Salvatto.
“He was very persistent,” recalls Salvatto. Soon after they met, Johnson told her his about his experiences in prison. “I was actually shocked someone innocent would be in prison so long,” said Salvatto.
But, his time in prison was not done. After the appelate court ordered his release, the Pa. Attorney General’s office filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to have that decision overturned. The attorney general’s office handled the original prosecution of the case in the 90s.
In an order published May 29, 2012, the justices wrote, “…the approach taken by the Court of Appeals was flawed because it unduly impinged on the jury’s role as factfinder.”
Ultimately, the order meant after 148 days of freedom, Johnson would be heading back to prison.
Salvatto remembers that day clearly. She said, “He had a tone in his voice that I’d never heard. He just said, ‘Come pick me up.’ When I got there it looked like someone sucked all the air out of him. His eyes were read. And, I’m like, ‘What happened?’ And he was like, ‘I have to go back.’”
During his time outside of prison, Johnson had connected with advocacy groups that speak out about wrongful convictions. He became friends with Jeffrey Deskovic, who was exonerated himself. Deskovic was the one who drove Johnson back to prison, where he remains to this day.
Johnson’s attorney, Michael Wiseman, has filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act, detailing new evidence in the case and demanding documents be turned over from the original investigation. Nearly 20 years after the shooting, Johnson says there are still police documents that he’s been unable to obtain.
Johnson’s legal team has been in touch with witnesses who allege former Harrisburg Police Detective Kevin Duffin threatened them or coerced them into giving false or inaccurate testimony during the trial.
Theresa Thomas, who lives in Harrisburg and was dating Lorenzo at the time of the murder, says Johnson told her on the day of the murder he would be in New York. During the murder investigation, Thomas says Detective Duffin came to see her “a couple of times.” She says she told Duffin that Johnson had called her from New York. Thomas says Duffin then accused her of lying and threatened to charge her with perjury. In the petition, Johnson’s attorneys write, “(Duffin) added that police would take away her children once she was charged.” She decided for the sake of her children not to testify at Johnson’s trial.
Another witness, Suquan Ripply Boyd, says he was with Lorenzo and four other people in New York the night of the shooting. Boyd acknowledged being involved with drug dealing with Johnson and Corey Walker, the convicted gunman. Boyd recalled leaving Harrisburg the day of the murder in the afternoon and returning around 3 a.m. Boyd recalled the next day he and Johnson spotted Det. Duffin in an unmarked police car, having seen the men in the midst of a drug deal. They took off, but police caught them and took them into custody.
In the months that followed, Boyd began serving a sentence for drug dealing. He recalls Duffin visiting him in prison during the murder investigation. Boyd told Duffin he was with Johnson in New York when the shooting happened. Boyd says Duffin grew angry and told Boyd to “be more vague” about the day the trip to New York happened or else he would seek to have Boyd’s prison sentence lengthened and see that he was indicted on federal charges. Boyd says he was “in a panic” and signed a new statement. “Despite what I said in that second police report, I have never been confused about the date we made that trip to New York,” said Boyd.
Duffin did not respond to requests for comment.
Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, who’s worked with Duffin on cases, defended the former detective’s work.
“Detective Duffin was a hardworking detective. And, police interrogations can take all different forms. There are certainly interrogations where salty language is used, where the suspect is challenged,” said Marsico.
Marsico’s office handled an unrelated murder case in which a witness is now recanting his testimony. Rufus Hudson testified last year that Detective Duffin checked him out of prison for coaching sessions on his testimony while the two ate at McDonald’s. A judge did not find Hudson’s claims credible.
“We do not believe there’s any credibility to it. I haven’t read the allegations and the other claims (in Johnson’s case), but I find (them) hard to believe,” said Marsico.
Johnson’s friends and family will hold a rally next Thursday outside Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office calling for her to support his release from prison. A spokeswoman for Kane did not reply to a request for comment.
“Oh, I will get out,” said Johnson. “In this situation, I never looked through my eyes as a lifer. I always knew I was coming back home. I just didn’t know when. And, I feel I’ve got the support system now to do that. And, I’ve got the evidence on my side, which is the truth.”
Johnson and his supporters have set up a website, which you can view by clicking here.