Richard R. Johnson

Erroneous ID, prosecutorial overreaching, defense ineptitude

There was conclusive evidence that Richard R. Johnson was innocent before his 1992 bench trial for the rape of a University of Chicago graduate student — serological testing had excluded him as the source of semen recovered from the victim.

From a police photo, the 21-year-old Caucasian victim identified Johnson, an African-American, as the man who raped her on September 20, 1990. Johnson was arrested in Florida on August 8, 1991, after the photo was featured on "America's Most Wanted." He waived extradition to Chicago, where the victim then identified him in a live lineup, and he was held without bond pending trial.

Despite the forensic results, Assistant State's Attorney Scott Nelson proceeded with the prosecution. Nor did Johnson's public defender, Michael Halloran, introduce the exculpatory evidence the trial. Based solely on the victim's identification testimony, Judge James M. Schreier found Johnson guilty and sentenced him to 36 years in prison.

Johnson contacted Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey organization that investigates potential wrongful convictions, agreed to pay for DNA testing, which confirmed the original serological finding. Schreier then vacated Johnson's conviction and set bond at $10,000. His family posted it, and he was released on December 5, 1995. The prosecution, however, refused to dismiss the charges, insisting on further testing. Nelson finally agreed to dismiss the charges on March 8, 1996. "I deeply regret I found you guilty of this offense," Schreier then told Johnson. Nelson did not apologize.

At the time of his arrest, Johnson was 31 and had no criminal record. His photo was in police files only as a result of a 1989 arrest for allegedly resisting a police officer, a misdemeanor charge that was dismissed.

— Rob Warden