June 17, 2004 OP-ED Mass. must atone for jailed innocents By Howard Manly No sense reminding Lawyer Johnson that the wheels of justice turn slow. Johnson spent 10 years in prison - two on death row - for a murder he didn't commit, and while it took prosecutors less than two years to convict an innocent man, it has taken the state almost 20 years to right its own wrongs. Ever since his release in 1985, Johnson, 52, has been fighting a reasonable fight based on one of the central tenets of the American justice system: Those who have inflicted an injury must compensate those who have suffered the injury in an amount appropriate to the wrong inflicted. There is no humane way to assess the ``appropriate'' amount owed someone like Johnson. Yesterday the state Senate passed legislation to award those wrongfully convicted as much as $500,000 and to force officials to apologize. State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (D-Roxbury), a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said her colleagues had little choice. ``This is more than a question of being fair,'' Wilkerson said, citing a recent Boston Herald series in which the faces of 21 wrongfully convicted men were published. ``Those are the faces of reality and as a result of the countless stories that are appearing on a much too regular basis, the public pressure has become so intense that a responsible Legislature couldn't do anything but to approve this bill.'' Once the bill is approved, Gov. Mitt Romney should also do the right thing and sign it into law. Romney, a strong advocate for the death penalty, would at least have more credibility if he were to have the state accept responsibility. Locking up an innocent man is bad enough; failing to acknowledge the mistake and compensate the innocent is worse, largely because the system depends on basic integrity. As it is now, 23 wrongfully convicted men have been exonerated and released over the last 22 years. Most of the convictions were overturned because of false identifications. Until the apology and compensation become law, the wrongfully convicted must take their chances in court and sue the city or in some cases the detectives involved in pursuing them. It shouldn't come to that. Just ask Johnson. He was 18 when he was arrested for the murder of James Christian in Mission Hill. His conviction was based on the testimony of some less than outstanding citizen later believed to be the real killer. Johnson was sentenced to death in 1972. The state abolished its death penalty two years later, and Johnson remained in maximum security until 1982. His case was overturned when a new witness came forward. A year later, the Legislature gave preliminary aproval to a bill that would have given Johnson $75,000 but that measure failed to gain final approval. To add more salt on Johnson's wounds, the state awarded $500,000 in 1992 to Bobby Joe Leaster, another innocent man who spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. But Johnson kept pressing. In 1999, three legislators - Reps. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), Byron Rushing (D-South End) and Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield) - took up his cause filed legislation to pay him $500,000. That bill has languished in the State House for the last five years. That's a crime in itself and was largely the result of an effective lobbying campaign waged by shameless district attorneys. At one point, Johnson admits, he lost faith in the system. ``But then,'' Johnson said, ``over a period of years, I realized that there are still some good people in government who would like to see the Legislature do the right thing in voting against the death penalty and to see to it that I get rightfully compensated for this grave injustice that took 10 years of my life away from me.'' Johnson can't get those 10 years back. But he is living proof of prosecutors' ability to make a mistake - and the death penalty's fatal flaw. And make no mistake about it. Compensation for the wrongfully convicted is part of the death penalty debate. ``The compensation is a prelude to the debate over Gov. Romney's much anticipated `error-proof death penalty,' '' Wilkerson said. ``There's no such thing as an error-proof death penalty. In each one of these wrongfully convicted cases, a jury deliberated long and hard and reached a decision that met the incredible difficult standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. But they were wrong. Dead wrong. But it happens. We're all human.'' Johnson still must wait. But at least the rock is moving in the right direction - downhill. Howard Manly's column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.