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Another man confessed but Northam won't exonerate Messiah Johnson

 UVA Innocence Project lawyers Deirdre Enright (left) and Jennifer Gibson with client Messiah Johnson.
UVA Innocence Project lawyers Deirdre Enright (left) and Jennifer Gibson with client Messiah Johnson.

Messiah Johnson was charged with a robbery in Norfolk, but police did not interview witnesses or look for finger prints. Instead, the Commonwealth’s Attorney relied on the shop owner’s testimony.

“The main witness said that he was driving down the street at 35-40 miles per hour in the middle of the night," Johnson recalls. "He looked out his window and said he saw the person that robbed him.”

The prosecutor offered Johnson a deal – three years in prison for a guilty plea.

“My first reaction was, ‘I’m not taking any plea deal. I’m innocent of the crime,” Johnson explains.

But a jury found him guilty and imposed several years on each of 24 counts – a sentence of 132 years for a robbery in which no one was injured. After 21 years, Governor Terry McAuliffe freed Johnson but did not exonerate him, so he still had a criminal record that made it hard to find work or an apartment and impossible to collect compensation for a wrongful conviction.

Then UVA’s Innocence Project discovered another man was locked up for a series of robberies in the same area at about the same time. Attorney Deirdre Enright met with him, and he confessed to the robbery for which Johnson was convicted.

“It seems like a no brainer to me to give him an absolute pardon and let him move on,” says Enright.

But Johnson’s request for an absolute pardon sat on Ralph Northam’s desk for nearly four years, and last week the governor’s office said it didn’t have time to consider the case.

“I’m allowed to vote. I have my own business. I pay taxes, but yet I still have this dark cloud over my head,” a disappointed Johnson told RadioIQ.

The governor’s office says he’s exonerated five Innocence Project clients since July, and his priority for pardons now is people still behind bars.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief