Boston Herald
 June 17, 2004 

 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 

 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 

 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 

 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 

 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.