The Truth May Set Terrell Johnson FreePa. Supreme Court Orders New Trial That Could End Fifteen Year Imprisonment
By Marie Do Rego
Innocence Institute of Point Park University
A ruling from the state’s highest court has set the stage for a new trial or possible plea bargain for freedom in the case of a Hazelwood man who, though he was convicted in the 1994 killing of a government witness, has long claimed his innocence.
In a one word ruling on Aug. 20, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied claims by the Allegheny County District Attorneys Office that new evidence produced last year by Terrell Johnson does not merit a new trial in the highly publicized, gang related murder of government witness Verna Robinson. She was a former crack addict gunned down just days before she was scheduled to testify against a member of the notorious Hazelwood Mob.
Johnson, who claims he did not belong to that gang, was accused of killing the informant along with his co-defendants Harold Cabbagestalk and Dorian Moorefield to prevent her testimony against a member of the Hazelwood Mob, which police credit for more than a dozen unsolved murders in the broken down former mill town during the early 1990s.
Yet while the testimony of the prosecution’s main eyewitness, Evelyn “Dolly” McBryde, resulted in Johnson’s life sentence, both of his co-defendants were acquitted when the jury heard evidence that was not presented in Johnson’s trial, including new evidence last year suggesting she was not at the murder scene to witness it.
While Johnson has steadfastly maintained his innocence and wants a jury to hear all of the evidence kept from him the first time, Richard Narvin of Pittsburgh, his lawyer, said he is already in contact with prosecutors and says that if a deal is struck Johnson “will walk out of prison a free man.”
A spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. could not be reached for comment.
In 2003, Johnson’s case was examined by the Innocence Institute of Point Park University. It found a wide assortment of problems with the facts as presented to a jury by McBryde, as well as a variety of other issues that questioned whether Johnson received a fair trial.
While Johnson has now been imprisoned 15 years, shortly after his sentencing, Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole first reversed his conviction when Johnson’s lawyer at the time testified that that he was ineffective for failing to investigate McBryde’s background in order to show a jury she was a liar, a thief and a life-long drug abusing criminal.
Information also came out after Johnson’s trial that she abused her children by not only prostituting them, but using them to steal merchandise from area malls. Her criminal exploits have not ended.
O’Toole’s decision to grant Johnson a new trial in 1997 was reversed by the state Superior Court and Johnson was sent to the State Institution in Greene County for the rest of his life.
In 2006, Johnson’s new lawyer filed an appeal stating a new witness had emerged. That witness claims McBryde was with him smoking crack cocaine several blocks away from the crime scene at the exact time she testified she watched Robinson’s murder.
That new information, combined with an assortment of contradictions in McBryde’s earlier testimony and statements, caused O’Toole in 2008 to reverse the conviction again, stating he believed Johnson did not receive a fair trial. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office appealed that decision and was denied by the Supreme Court Aug. 20.
That leaves prosecutors with three options: to try Johnson a second time even though McBryde has continued to rack up convictions – she now has more than 50 – most recently for federal bank fraud charges; complete a plea bargain that would end the ordeal, or appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which grants less than 80 appeals a year.
“I think the right thing has been done in this case. I believe that the Supreme Court has been moving away from granting new trials, so this decision is heartening for all defense counsel,” Narvin said.
Marie Do Rego is a graduate assistant and reporter for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, a journalism-based innocence project. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-765-3164.