By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Hundreds of activists, residents and leaders in legal and faith circles gathered Sunday night at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham to raise awareness about Alabama Death Row inmate Toforest Johnson who they say is innocent.
Johnson, 50, is on death row at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, after being charged with the 1995 killing of William Hardy, a Jefferson County deputy sheriff who was working security for a Birmingham hotel while off-duty from his official law enforcement position.
Former Alabama Chief Justice Drayton Nabers Jr. and former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley are among numerous lawyers, former judges and prosecutors who have submitted briefs or written editorials supporting a new trial for Johnson. Danny Carr, the Jefferson County District Attorney, has also called for a new trial.
On Monday, Johnson’s lawyers filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to have his case reconsidered. There is no physical evidence linking Johnson to the shooting which killed Hardy, said Katherine Moss, who was present at Sunday’s event.
Johnson’s petition argues that a secret payment of $5,000 to the State’s key witness warranted a new trial. The secret payment was disclosed to Johnson’s lawyers almost 20 years after it was made, and after years of official denials that the witness was ever paid. According to State officials, who continue to pursue Johnson’s execution, it had been “misfiled” all those years.
Johnson’s Petition to the U.S. Supreme Court can be accessed here: https://tinyurl.com/444jr3cr
Antonio Green, a cousin of Johnson, said that Johnson’s conviction was wrongful and the fact that his cousin “is going through something that had nothing to do with him, [which] makes it a lot harder to bear … for his family, children, his mom and dad, uncles, cousins, aunts.”
Johnson has been on death row since 1998, but Green said there is still time to correct an incorrect, and unjust, conviction.
“He’s still down there breathing right now. He still has life, so it’s not too late to right this wrong, to fix this grievous mistake and let our family member, our loved one come home…” Green said.
Former Alabama AG Baxley said Sunday night he was at first skeptical that there would be something improper about the case, but after reading up on it, said he’s not seen anything like it in his 60 years as an attorney. If Johnson is given a new trial any lawyer would see the miscarriage of justice in the case, Baxley said.
“I don’t believe there’s a self-respecting person in our system that’s going to stand up and say, ‘This evidence supports the death penalty’…We’ve got to bring a spotlight on it, and say cut through it, and quit hiding behind saying, ‘It’s too late’…With the death penalty, it’s never too late,” Baxley said.
Scott Douglas, founder and executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, said as many people as possible need to join the effort to have Johnson’s case reconsidered.
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts of men and women willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation,” said Douglas, reading from The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s legendary “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written 60 years ago this month.
Beth Shelburne, a former reporter and anchor for WBRC Fox 6, who will be releasing a podcast chronicling Johnson’s story, said she thought something like Johnson’s case was “impossible.”
“It sounded like a John Grisham novel. ‘That all sounds really spicy and interesting, would make a great story, but I’m sure there’s more to it,’” Shelburne said.
After further research everything she was told by family and lawyers of Johnson “was true,” said Shelburne who is set to release a podcast in September titled “Toforest: An American Injustice,” which she hopes will lead “the powers that be to finally do the right thing, she said.
“We also hope that it’s an opportunity for us to confront a lot of really difficult truths about our system, a system that really refuses to self-correct, and we can’t stand for that,” Shelburne said.
In December 2022, the Alabama Supreme Court denied an appeal from Johnson’s lawyers. That appeal centered around a claim the state violated his right to a fair trial by failing to disclose that key witness was motivated by a $5,000 reward.
For more information about Johnson visit https://toforestjohnson.com.
Updated at 9:29 a.m. on 4/17/2023 to correct the number in attendance.
Updated at 11:05 a.m. on 4/17/2023 to include the U.S. Supreme Court filing.