A man who spent nearly 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit was freed Tuesday after DNA tests cleared him in the 1984 attack of a female college student.
The release of 47-year-old Larry Johnson came just days after a prosecutor revealed his exoneration by DNA tests on evidence long believed to have been destroyed.
Johnson did not speak with a reporter as he left the state’s maximum-security Crossroads Correctional Facility, about 50 miles north of Kansas City. Wearing tan pants and a blue shirt, he carried only a red folder holding legal papers as he climbed into the front seat of a small sports utility vehicle and was driven away.
“He is very grateful and he’s looking forward to getting home,” said Cheryl Pilate, one of Johnson’s attorneys.
Pilate said Johnson was headed to lunch, then for a flight to St. Louis, where an afternoon news conference was expected.
In announcing the DNA results late last week, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said Johnson “has been horribly wronged” by being convicted and sentenced in 1984 to life plus 30 years for rape, sodomy, kidnapping and robbery.
“Absolutely, there is no way I can ever make this up to him,” said Joyce, who had no role in Johnson’s trial. “But I’m really relieved and gratified to uncover this miscarriage of justice.”
Joyce had called the DNA findings announced Friday preliminary, saying they had been sent back to the police crime lab for confirmation. The delay annoyed C. John Pleban, Johnson’s St. Louis attorney.
“A penitentiary is designed to punish people; it’s not a country club,” Pleban said Monday. “So every day, every minute he spends there is an injustice.”
When it comes to being freed, Pleban said Johnson told him “he’ll believe it when he sees it. After 18 years, I suspect there’s been a lot of false hope.”
Joyce said she planned to ask police to reopen the case.
Johnson, of St. Louis, was sentenced in September 1984 on charges that he kidnapped, raped, sodomized and robbed a 20-year-old Saint Louis University student in her car eight months earlier.
The victim said her attacker, armed with a knife, kept a sweatshirt pulled over his head but during the attack removed a scarf from around his face. A day later, the victim was shown 140 mugshots and identified Johnson, then picked him out of a police lineup.
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 a review about 1,400 old cases of rape, murder and assault to pinpoint where new DNA tests would be warranted. She said that project would study cases that arose before Jan. 1, 1994 and in which the convicted remain in prison.
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, said Monday he welcomed Johnson’s prison release.
But Scheck said Joyce should take no credit for Johnson’s being cleared after the inmate’s years of pursuing DNA testing. Scheck, whose decade-old Innocence Project has exonerated dozens of prisoners through post-conviction DNA tests, accused Joyce of having stonewalled DNA testing for Johnson and others since being elected prosecutor in November 2000.
“When the rubber meets the road and she has to do things, she’s making frivolous objections,” Scheck said. “Her position is bankrupt and I’m really offended by this kind of obstinence. She has been offensive, rude and purposely delaying this.”
Joyce countered that reviewing Johnson’s case was among her first missions since taking office, though she was told the DNA evidence had been destroyed to clear room for items in newer cases. But when a pipe burst in February in a basement storage room at St. Louis’ Municipal Courts building, workers salvaging evidence found bags from Johnson’s case, Joyce said.
“I would think that if I were Mr. Scheck, I would be happy that my Innocence Project was instrumental in getting Mr. Johnson’s case on top of the stack of cases we’ve reviewed and that Mr. Johnson has been exonerated,” Joyce said.