During his almost 30 years behind bars on a murder charge – 10,886 days, to be exact – Jerome L. Johnson protested his innocence.
In July 2018, a Baltimore judge answered his prayers – completely exonerating Johnson after re-investigating the case, a 1988 shooting in a Northwest Baltimore tavern.
But now Johnson’s lawyers have filed a federal lawsuit alleging not only that the detectives in his case withheld key evidence that could have proved his innocence, but that similar behavior has been condoned at the Baltimore Police Department for years.
“The BPD has systematically suppressed exculpatory and impeachment evidence over the course of decades,” the lawsuit states.
It names the police department as well as the individual detectives who handled the case: Kevin Davis, Frank Barlow, Daniel Boone and Gerald Goldstein.
“Mr. Johnson was robbed of the prime of his life. While nothing in the world can give Mr. Johnson that time back, the police officers who violated his rights and are responsible for his wrongful conviction should be held accountable,” said Kobie A. Flowers, one of Johnson’s attorneys in the lawsuit.
Spokesman Jeremy Silbert said the BPD does not comment on pending litigation.
Report Omitted, Witness Pressured
According to the complaint, the detectives concealed an initial statement by the prosecution’s star witness that would have cast doubt on her later testimony.
Because a police report describing that statement was withheld, the jury never heard it.
That witness, a 15-year-old girl who was the cousin of victim Aaron Taylor, was pressured by the detectives change her story, the suit also alleges.
It accuses the detectives of falsifying police reports by leaving out her initial statement and misleading the judge and jury at the criminal trial.
Following his conviction, Johnson “repeatedly and exhaustively challenged his convictions in post-conviction proceedings,” the suit says. “For decades, state and federal courts rejected his efforts.”
On the day Johnson’s name was cleared, he stood outside of the Baltimore Circuit Court with lawyers from the nonprofit based at George Washington University who helped set him free.
“Today marks the first time in 30 years that the criminal justice system has worked for Jerome,” Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, said to reporters that day.
The lawsuit spells out what he says he endured in prison – “significant periods” of solitary confinement, assaults, two stabbings in two separate incidents.
He entered prison at the age of 20 and left at 51.
“Misconduct and Illegality”
In addition to the arguments on Johnson’s behalf, the 36-page complaint cites “multiple acts of misconduct and illegality committed by multiple BPD detectives and officers” that “constituted the official or unofficial policies of the BPD.”
“BPD employees themselves have admitted or acknowledged that detectives within the homicide unit have failed to share evidence with state prosecutors, or to maintain case files and record information in a manner that would allow such disclosures,” the complaint says.
The suit cites multiple additional cases of alleged BPD malfeasance including:
• In 1999, Tyrone Jones was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the shooting death of a 15-year-old boy. At trial, the state presented evidence that a witness identified Jones in a photo array. His lawyer later discovered evidence in the BPD case file that the witness who identified Jones at trial “had told a BPD officer that he had not seen the shooting or the shooter.”
• In 1999, Garreth Parks was convicted of the murder of Charles Hill. Parks was later exonerated after it came to light that BPD officers had suppressed a police report, written shortly after the murder, that documented the true shooter’s confession.
• In 1988, Anthony Coleman was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. His lawyer subsequently “elicited testimony from the BPD detective investigating the homicide, Detective Sydnor, that BPD homicide detectives used their discretion to decide which documents to share with State Prosecutor.”
Asked if he shares all documents with the state, the detective said, “It depends on what it’s about. Yeah, if it’s pertinent to the investigation, yeah, I would. If it’s something between me and another detective, I may not.”
The suit also notes an internal report on the BPD’s homicide unit, released in January 2000, that covered the period of Johnson’s case. It found “an apparent mutual lack of confidence and a serious divisive deficiency in teamwork” between the BPD and state’s attorney’s office.
The report also found that BPD homicide detectives kept case folders in “abysmal condition – that is, when they can be located.”