My home state of Alabama is no stranger to controversial court cases involving innocent men on death row. The most well-known case was recently portrayed in the movie Just Mercy, which was based on a book by the same name. Walter McMillian was wrongly convicted of murdering Rhonda Morrison based on the testimony of a witness who later changed his story. It took several years and the work of attorney Bryan Stevenson to get the verdict overturned and McMillian off of death row.
Alabama has another case of an apparently innocent man on death row, and again, the powers that be appear dead set on doing nothing to right the wrong. In July 1995, someone murdered an off-duty Jefferson County Sheriff who was also working as a security guard at a motel. As usually happens in a case involving the murder of a law enforcement officer, the public was hungry for authorities to charge someone for gunning down Deputy Hardy in the motel parking lot.
Rodney Balk carefully detailed what happened next in a 2019 story for the Washington Post. Based on the testimony of a woman named Yolanda Chambers, police arrested Johnson and his friend Ardragus Ford. Over time, Chambers told multiple stories that resulted in the arrest of five different men for Hardy’s murder. Prosecutors eventually put Ford and Johnson up for trial, trying them separately with different theories of the crime. In Ford’s trial, Chambers testified for the prosecution, and in Johnson’s case, she testified for the defense. During the Ford trial, prosecutors tried to convince jurors that Chambers was a reliable witness. Then they said they doubted her reliability as a witness during Johnson’s trial and painted her as a liar.
Ford’s jury hung with the jury voting 10-2 in favor of acquittal. Johnson’s jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death. In the intervening years, it has become more and more clear how flimsy the case against him was and that there is almost no way he is guilty. The state’s witnesses both received thousands of dollars in reward money, which was not revealed to the jury. Former Attorneys General and Chief Justices of the Supreme Court are calling for a new trial. The Jefferson County District Attorney says he no longer has confidence in the verdict.
Despite the evidence and the outcry from former elected officials, Johnson remains on death row. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall could choose to intervene, but he has stayed on the sidelines. The same goes for Governor Kay Ivey. Both are facing primary challenges, and Republicans in Alabama cannot be seen as soft on crime, even when the man is innocent.
In America, it is a tragedy when innocent men spend time in jail. It is dramatically worse when they are looking at having their life taken away when the government is the one who made the mistake. Cases like this should prick the conscience of every American, especially those who follow Jesus and claim to believe in the Bible.
The American system of justice enshrined in the Bill of Rights favors protecting the rights of the accused. The 4th amendment guards their property rights when they are suspected of a crime, the 5th ensures due process is followed when they are accused of committing a crime, the 6th requires the government to follow proper procedures when the accused is on trial for a crime, and the 8th amendment prevents the government from using cruel or unusual punishment when the accused is convicted of a crime.
The book of Proverbs speaks clearly about the necessity of honest judgment in business and in the courts. Proverbs 17:15 says that clearing the guilty and punishing the innocent are both an abomination to the Lord. As Christians, we care about the truth. If the truth points to a man’s innocence, then we want the truth to win out. Also, we recognize that God has given the power of the sword to the government, but since men and women are made in God’s image, we want the government to use that power wisely, not capriciously.
For the past four decades, conservative Christians have flocked to vote for politicians who promise to be tough on crime. That is understandable since we believe that people should be held accountable for their actions. However, it is more important for us to support people who are right on crime. In our zeal to see “justice” done, we must remember that justice is more than putting people in prison. It is also clearing those who have committed no crime so they can get on with living their lives.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©Pexels/Donald Tong
Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”