New evidence discredits key eyewitness testimony
February 5, 2008
By Jodi Weigand, Jesse Miller and Ben Adducchio
Terrell Johnson, imprisoned since 1996 in a gangland-style execution of a government snitch, has been granted a new trial based on new evidence that at the precise time of the killing the woman who said she watched the slaying was several blocks away smoking crack cocaine in a Hazelwood basement.
In a one-page order granting a new trial, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole said Mr. Johnson, 32, proved at an appeals hearing last November that testimony from the new witness, a long-time drug addict named Kenneth “Skinny” Robinson, forced him to order a new trial because the new evidence could not reasonably “have been determined prior to (Johnson’s original) trial,” according to the order.
Shortly after his conviction, Judge O’Toole also reversed Mr. Johnson’s conviction due to ineffective counsel, but that ruling was overturned on appeal and subsequent appeals denied, condemning Mr. Johnson to a life sentence in prison until the ruling Friday. Two others implicated in the killing were acquitted at trial.
"He was so happy, just happy," Saundra Cole said of her husband when he heard the news during a telephone call from the State Correctional Institution at Greene. "But we've been here before. We're just praising God anyway in advance, hoping this is it."
The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office appealed the ruling Tuesday, according to court documents. Neither Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala nor J. Richard Narvin, Mr. Johnson’s present attorney, could immediately be reached for comment.
“The whole thing was a travesty based on lies,” said John Elash, who was the penalty phase attorney in Mr. Johnson’s first trial.
November Hearing Changed Case The Jan. 29, 2008 decision stems from the testimony in November by Mr. Robinson, who said he was smoking crack with Evelyn McBryde, the government’s key witness, at the time Verna Robinson, a recovering drug addict, was murdered only hours after she was supposed to testify in an un-related shooting involving the notorious and deadly Hazelwood Mob, which police believed was responsible for at least 10 unsolved killings in that area.
While she told no one of what she supposedly saw, three weeks later when Ms. McBryde was caught stealing at an area mall, she asked police for a deal if she testified she witnessed the murder by Mr. Johnson and two others. It was her testimony that resulted in Mr. Johnson’s conviction during the first of three trials in the matter.
By the time his two co-defendants went to trial, lawyers and investigators shredded her eyewitness testimony by proving her story did not match that of other witnesses or the murder scene’s landscape. They also produced much more evidence about Ms. McBryde’s drug-fueled criminal background, and documented numerous additional lies, hidden deals and other issues related to her voracity that later led to acquittals for both of Mr. Johnson’s co-defendants.
In 2001, the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, an investigative reporting program where students learn skills through probes of allegations of wrongful convictions, conducted a detailed investigation of Mr. Johnson’s murder conviction. Students interviewed witnesses, examined the crime scene and uncovered numerous other inconsistencies in statements from Ms. McBryde, who is currently incarcerated for bank fraud. The institute uncovered and wrote about numerous instances of questionable deals from prosecutors, hidden evidence and ineffective legal assistance.
According to court documents, she was given reduced sentences for prostituting her children, using them to steal from retail outlets, and even getting away with shoplifting while she accompanied a Pittsburgh Police Detective who was trying to protect her. Ms. McBryde is also known to have used over 11 different names and six different Social Security numbers.
At Mr. Johnson’s trial, Ms. McBryde testified the night of the killing, she went to a nearby bar and then a drug den before she walked up a street and secreted herself behind bushes in front of a house when she watched the attack on Ms. Robinson. After Mr. Johnson’s conviction when Ms. McBryde realized a locked gate would have prevented her from seeing the murder, she changed that story to say she watched the brutal killing from beside the home, which would have placed her in plain view of the killers.
At Mr. Johnson’s PCRA hearing late last year, Mr. Robinson, another long-time criminal and drug addict, came forward for the first time. He said Ms. McBryde, and another man, whose name he couldn’t recall, were smoking crack in a basement on Glenwood Ave., Hazelwood. A short time later, his mother called him to tell him about the shooting of Verna Robinson several blocks away and advised him to get out of the house, known as a “hot house,” or a drug house.
“I told them to leave,” Mr. Robinson testified. “The guy left pretty quick, but Dolly took her time. I told her that Verna had been killed, and she said, ‘What?’”
Neither the jury nor the judge in Mr. Johnson’s first trial or the other cases heard testimony from Mr. Robinson.
At the appeals hearing, Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Ron Wabby argued that members of the Johnson defense team knew about the information Mr. Robinson had for years, which under the law, precluded them from bringing it up at this late date.
“If I knew this man could have proven my innocence, why wouldn’t I tell someone,” said Mr. Johnson under oath. “I would have been screaming it from behind the prison bars.”
After Mr. Johnson and others testified they did not have the information until just before his latest appeal was filed, Judge O’Toole ruled in his favor.