BALTIMORE - A Baltimore man who spent nearly three decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit said he never gave up hope he would be freed. Last week, Jerome Johnson’s persistence paid off.
“I went into prison at the age of 20, and I came out at 50,” Johnson said.
It was 1988 and his girlfriend had just had a baby when he was convicted of killing a man at a Baltimore bar.
“Of course you’re going to feel anger. The justice system let you down,” he said. “My daughter was actually one day old.”
Johnson wasn’t even at the scene of the crime. He was a block away, but one witness linked him to the murder. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.
“I took initiative to go to the library, study law and try to help myself,” Johnson said of his time in prison.
Eventually, he connected with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a group that has helped free 28 men wrongfully convicted in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
After years of work, he was released on July 2. At a press conference, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said the man who pulled the trigger in the murder, who was also convicted, made a sworn statement that Johnson wasn’t present for the shooting. That was just one of the factors that led to Johnson’s exoneration.
“On behalf of the criminal justice system, I must tell you, I apologize to you and your family for the pain that you have endured because of this wrongful conviction,” Mosby said.
Johnson said in the week that has passed since he was freed, he has been enjoying life and taking things slowly.
“I was fortunate to be able to meet my grandchildren,” he said.
Independence Day with his family took on new meaning.
“We went out and saw the fireworks down at the harbor for the Fourth of July,” he said.
Most surprising, he said he carries no ill will despite all the time he lost.
“When you get spiritually grounded, you realize that everything happens for reason,” Johnson said. “Be it good in your life or bad in your life, there’s always a lesson to be learned.”
Johnson is one of three men exonerated for murder in Baltimore in the past few years. Last year, Lamar Johnson was freed after 13 years behind bars. In 2016, Malcolm Bryant was freed after 17 years in prison. Bryant later died.
The Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office created a Conviction Integrity Unit to help identify cases like these.