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Family happy with new trial for man convicted in 1994 Homewood slaying

| Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, 12:19 a.m.
Saundra Cole-McKamey, wife of Terrell Johnson speaks at a Justice for Terrell Johnson rally August 29, 2012 in front of the City-County Building downtown. Terrell Johnson was 19-years-old when he was convicted of first-degree murder and given life in prison. He has been granted a new trial based on a new witness who claims a woman who identified Johnson in 1995 was smoking crack and “turning a trick” in a basement a few blocks away. Johnson's trial is supposed to start on Thursday. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Lutual Love, 5 holds a sign at a Justice for Terrell Johnson rally on August 29, 2012, in front of the City-County Building downtown. Terrell Johnson was 19-years-old when he was convicted of first-degree murder and given life in prison. He has been granted a new trial based on a new witness who claims a woman who identified Johnson in 1995 was smoking crack and “turning a trick” in a basement a few blocks away. Johnson's trial is supposed to start on Thursday. Love's father is a co-worker of Johnson's wife, Saundra Cole-McKamey. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Saundra Cole-McKamey, wife of Terrell Johnson (fifth from left), claps at a Justice for Terrell Johnson rally on August 29, 2012 in front of the City-County Building downtown. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Saundra Cole-McKamey, wife of Terrell Johnson, chats with supporters at a Justice for Terrell Johnson rally. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Seventeen years after he was convicted, Terrell Johnson will be retried next week for a brutal gangland-style murder in Hazelwood that he and his family adamantly say he didn't commit.

Johnson, 37, has been in state prison since a jury convicted him of the fatal 1994 shooting of Verna Robinson, 30, who was the first person in the city's witness protection program. She was killed three days before she was scheduled to testify against a “Hazelwood Mob” gang member.

Family, friends and supporters formed the “Justice for Terrell Johnson” campaign, rallying on his behalf countless times since a judge handed down a life sentence in 1995. About 30 supporters turned out again Wednesday at the Allegheny County Courthouse.

“The last 18 years have been really difficult,” said Johnson's wife, Saundra Cole, 47, of Hazelwood. “It has been a test because our children are grown.”

An Allegheny County jury convicted Johnson primarily based on the testimony of Evelyn “Dolly” McBride, who said she saw Johnson shoot Robinson on a Hazelwood Street on July 21, 1994, said Bret Grote, an investigator and organizer with the Human Rights Coalition-FedUp! The Human Rights Commission is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works to ensure proper treatment of prisoners and help wrongfully convicted inmates.

McBride, however, didn't tell police she had been witness to the murder until two weeks later, after she had been charged with theft and was facing up to 50 years in jail, Grote said. In July 2005, an appellate court judge denied Johnson's appeal, taking away his hope.

“(Johnson) said, ‘You know Saun, just go ahead on with your life. I don't see no light.' “ Cole said. “I told him, ‘God didn't tell me to move yet.' I told him to ‘keep your eyes on God.' ”

Five months after that conversation, Cole said someone told her she might want to talk to Kenneth Robinson, who later confirmed that McBride was with him at the time of the murder. Cole persuaded Robinson to testify.

With a new witness, Johnson petitioned the court for a new trial, which a judge granted in August 2009.

A month later, the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office offered Johnson a plea deal of 7 12 to 15 years, which would have allowed him to go home with credit for time served.

“He turned it down because he said he didn't do it,” Cole said. “I told him that when you believe in God, you don't have to make a deal for nobody.”Grote said the district attorney's office now plans to call Dinah Brown, whose apartment McBride claimed she was in at the time of the shooting, and Barbara Robinson, Verna Robinson's mother who said she couldn't identify Johnson until 2010.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., declined comment.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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