October 20, 1982 MURDER CHARGE DROPPED, HE'S FREE MAN AGAIN Betsy A. Lehman and Joseph M. Harvey, Globe Staff A 30-year-old Roxbury man who was sentenced to death and who spent 10 years in prison for a murder he said he did not commit was freed yesterday in Massachusetts Superior Court. All charges against Lawyer Johnson of Dorr street, Roxbury, were dismissed, based on new evidence from a witness to a 1971 murder who now says that Johnson was not the guilty man. The witness, who was 10 years old when the murder was committed, says the real killer was the man who testified against Johnson in two previous trials. Shortly before noon yesterday, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge James P. McGuire accepted the recommendation of Asst. Dist. Atty. Thomas J. Mundy that charges against Johnson, who was facing a third trial in the murder of James Christian, 30, of Chelsea, be dismissed. The third trial was ordered after the new witness came forward in 1981. Kenneth Meyers, the man who previously identified Johnson as the killer, is now serving a long sentence in Walpole state prison for robbery and refuses to testify again. Without his testimony, the prosecution had no case. Dawnielle Montiero, a neighbor in the Mission Hill project, has said she saw Meyers shoot Christian but was afraid to say so. Mundy has contended that the long delay before Montiero's testimony and her friendship with Johnson raised doubts about the reliability of her testimony. Christian, a reported drug addict, was shot twice in the face as he came out of the doorway of a Mission Hill public housing project on Prentiss street on Dec. 17, 1971. Johnson has said all along that he was not at the scene, but in two trials could not prove it. The first trial, in 1972, resulted in Johnson's conviction for first degree murder and Judge Wilfred J. Paquet ordering the mandatory death sentence. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court set aside the conviction and sentence in 1974 because Meyers, the principal prosecution witness, had been allowed to withhold the identities of two alleged witnesses to the shooting. A second trial in November 1974, at which Meyers again identified Johnson as the killer, ended in a second degree murder conviction with a mandatory life sentence. In 10 years, Johnson has been incarcerated at the Walpole, Norfolk and Concord correctional institutions. In an interview yesterday in his mother's house, where he has lived since he was released in February on bail, Johnson said that "anger destroys," but still he is bitter about the legal system that twice convicted him, once to death, and once to life in prison. He accused prosecutors of manipulating both the jury and the testimony because they cared only about getting a conviction, not about the truth. "It was a legal lynching," he said. The prosecution, he said, "fabricated and conspired" with Meyers. Both juries were all white; the murder victim was white, too, and Johnson, who is black, said the racial fears of the jurors were played on by the prosecution. "I totally believed in the system of justice," he said. "My faith in the system is gone." (Mundy, who was also the prosecutor in the original case, yesterday called Johnson's release a "travesty of justice." ("We reluctantly dismissed the indictment because of the age of the case and the unavailability of witnesses," Mundy told The Associated Press.) Johnson said he has little interest in voting, doesn't really feel "part of the crowd," yet, but opposes capital punishment. "Two wrongs don't make a right," he said. In prison, Johnson learned to paint, cook and to be a barber. He is enrolled in a beauty academy now to learn to be a hairdresser. He hopes the hairdressing will support him until he can make it as a serious artist. Art is his passion, the one part of his life in which he said he feels complete confidence. Perhaps most of all, however, Lawyer Johnson learned in prison to rely on no one but himself, he said. "I am like an atom," he said intently, "that has direction entirely of its own. I don't like to be attached." Maintaining aloofness from the depression and violence of prison and thinking of himself as an observer, said Johnson, got him through the last 10 years. Sometimes he fasted for a week at a time, just to improve his willpower, he said. He found he had to make something in his cell that would make the bars and cement slab walls disappear from his consciousness, he said. "I thought, what can I do? It had to be something creative, supporting, life-giving," said Johnson, a tall, reed-thin man with close-cropped hair. "Art was a form of escapism." Johnson said he learned how to paint and got his first supplies from the nonprofit Massachusetts Prison Art Project. From then on, nearly every day, he stroked brilliant colors of acrylic paint onto canvas. He said he visualized scenes outside the prison walls and painted them. He has had paintings in some 15 art shows, and has won several prizes. Some artists have told Johnson his work looks like that of Kandinsky. Johnson, who read everything he could about art in prison libraries, said he had never even heard of Kandinsky before. One of his favorite paintings, called "Atom," shows a single black figure in an overwhelming, animated abstract jungle. Michael Fields, a spokesman for the Campaign Against Restoration of the Death Penalty, said Johnson's case "is another illustration of the injustice of the death penalty. If he had been executed, these new developments would not have done him much good," Fields said. Johnson's lawyer Michael Avery of Boston said, "If he had been executed in 1972 we would have lost some of the beautiful art he has created." Clearly, what is most painful to Johnson is all that he missed. He said his family, with six sisters and two brothers, would have had fewer problems if he had been there. When he got out of prison, he was shocked to find another generation of young people had taken his place. "So many things," he said, asked what he would have done with his 20s. His quick, animated voice slowed and became quiet. "I would have married, had children, my own apartment, a car. Everything a man needs to feel adequate. I know I would have had it. "I can't make up for that." Johnson's priority right now is to earn enough money to move away, perhaps to New York, Washington or California, where he wants an apartment of his own. He thinks a new city will help him stop thinking about prison and may afford more acceptance of his art. "I know if I get out of Boston, I'll get over," he said. "I haven't tapped one-third of my creative potential. I believe I have a future."