Life on the outside tough
Terrell Johnson recently started sleeping again.
A year ago, when he left prison, he would stay up all night cleaning or rearranging furniture, trying to keep busy to avoid falling asleep.
“I didn't want to wake up and realize I was dreaming and that I was still there,” said Johnson, 38, of Hazelwood.
Speaking publicly about his case for the first time, Johnson says he grew up behind the metal bars and concrete walls of the Greene County penitentiary, where a jury sent him in 1995 for the gangland-style murder of Verna Robinson, 20, of Hazelwood.
His release occurred in September when a second jury found him not guilty. He told the Tribune-Review he doesn't know what happened to Robinson that night and that he was at a friend's house.
“I couldn't believe justice turned around like that, but God gives you the power to go on,” said Barbara Robinson, 71, who lives on Almeda Street near where her daughter died.
She believes Johnson was involved in the murder: “Terrell knows. ... I'm not saying he was the one who pulled the trigger, but if he didn't, why didn't he say who did?”
Although no one tracks how many prisoners gain release with retrials, authorities said Johnson's term was among the longest in Allegheny County.
A witness came forward with information after 13 years, and prosecutors retried the case five years after that.
“The narrative generally stops when a judge orders a release or a new trial,” said Dwight L. Aarons, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in wrongful convictions. “This one is a little different. After the order of a new trial, the prosecutors went forward with a second trial and used the same evidence.”
Based on testimony from Evelyn “Dolly” McBryde of Hazelwood, police charged Johnson and three other men with the July 22, 1994, murder of Robinson, a witness to a drive-by shooting who once accused Johnson of beating her up over a $100 drug debt.
McBryde talked to police when she was caught shoplifting. She testified in 1995 that she heard a shot and saw the men surround Robinson on the street. One man shot her twice in the head, she said.
Johnson and two friends testified he was instead at a house, but jurors convicted him of first-degree murder. He drew a life prison sentence. In separate trials, one of the other men was acquitted of murder but convicted of conspiracy; the other was acquitted of all charges.
At Johnson's retrial, witness Kenneth Robinson — unrelated to the victim — testified that McBryde could not have witnessed the shooting because she was with him when it happened.
Johnson said he chose to be retried rather than accept a deal the district attorney's office offered, in which he would get credit for time served if he pleaded guilty.
“I wasn't going to plead guilty to something I didn't do,” he said.
Neither the prosecutor's office nor trial Judge Donald Machen would comment about the case.
The detective in the case could not be reached.
Johnson's attorney, Turahn Jenkins, said congratulatory messages filled his voicemail after the verdict. Jenkins now is on staff with the county public defender's office.
Johnson said he has spent 11 months renewing relationships with his family.
“It's been very challenging,” said his wife, Saundra Cole, 48, whom he married three years into his prison term. “Even though it's been 18 years of visits and telephone calls, it wasn't really like I never allowed myself to believe he was in jail. … He was always here emotionally and spiritually, just not physically.”
Johnson and Cole run a nonprofit, PoorLaw, out of their home. Between them, they are parents of nine children. Finding his place within the family has been complicated, Johnson said.
“I'm still just trying to get to know everybody. I watched them grow up in the visiting room,” he said.
Cases like Johnson's demonstrate the need to ensure accurate eyewitnesses, said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia School of Law professor who wrote a book about false prosecutions.
“You'd hope that cases like this would encourage the push for the adoption of more accurate lineup procedures,” Garrett said.
Johnson writes to some of the men imprisoned with him and sometimes talks with defendants about their rights.
He recalls feeling alone in prison, staring at photographs of his family.
“I used to look at this house in pictures,” he said. “Now I'm in the picture.”
Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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