The DNA Fail That Almost Killed Kareem Johnson
Aug. 27, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — The 2007 murder trial of Kareem Johnson was a slam dunk for the prosecution. Sure, the motive that Johnson shot and killed Walter Smith outside of a North Philadelphia night club because Smith was a potential witness against a friend of Johnson’s was a bit weak. The testimony from a jailhouse informant who claimed he heard Johnson confess to the murder was, as is all such testimony, quite suspect.
But the smoking gun was the DNA evidence. Johnson, the prosecution claimed, shot Smith at such close range, that Smith’s blood had splattered onto Johnson’s hat. During summation, Assistant District Attorney Michael Barry made the jury’s job almost too easy.
That hat that was left at the scene in the middle of the street has Kareem Johnson’s sweat on it and has Walter Smith’s blood on it. DNA is a witness. It is a silent, unflappable witness.
Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2002 slaying. In April of this year, though, the “silent, unflappable witness” flapped. Judge Lillian Harris Ransom ordered a new trial after Eric Montroy, Johnson’s appellate lawyer, brought a small issue to her attention.
Montroy had discovered, after examining the all-important DNA report, that two hats were tested, one belonging to the defendant, Kareem Johnson, and the other the victim, Walter Smith. Contrary to what ADA Barry claimed during trial, Smith’s blood was not on Johnson’s hat. Smith’s blood was on Smith’s hat.
Whoops. Or, as the prosecutor called it, “an honest mistake.” The only credible evidence in the state’s case against Kareem Johnson turned out to be evidence of nothing.
When confronted with this discrepancy, Cameron Kline, spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, was not impressed.
This is a piece of evidence. We believe the evidence shows that he is guilty.
Except it isn’t. And it doesn’t. The DNA evidence that has now vanished into thin reality removes the core of the prosecution’s case against Johnson. There was no eyewitness testimony. No one took the stand, pointed at Johnson and said “I saw him pull the trigger.” The only piece of evidence that is left is the word of a jailhouse informant.
It should come as no surprise that this “realization” has not changed the mind of the District Attorney. But let’s be honest, the DA must have been in on it the whole time. This is not a situation where the fine intricacies of DNA science threw the government for an honest loop.
Barry had to know that Smith’s blood was not on Johnson’s hat the whole time he was telling the jury that it was. The report was clear that one hat had Smith’s blood and Smith’s sweat, because it was Smith’s hat. It’s inconceivable that Barry made an “honest mistake” when he twisted the report into Smith’s blood, Johnson’s sweat on Johnson’s hat. This was almost certainly a lie to get a conviction of this person as opposed to the right person.
Judge Ransom came down hard in her ruling … against the defense. She found that Johnson’s trial attorneys were legally ineffective for failing to discover the DNA “mix-up.” While she is certainly correct (and we will get to the defense side in a moment), why did this judge decide to scold the side that got duped instead of the side that committed the duping? Is the failure to catch a lie worse than the lie itself?
If the error in the DNA report, which clearly showed the hat to have Smith’s sweat and blood, and not Johnson’s, should have been discovered by the defense (it should have), then shouldn’t it have also been “discovered” by the District Attorney? Although Johnson’s appellate attorney called the prosecution’s trial assertions a “complete fabrication” that amounted to prosecutorial misconduct, crickets from the Bench.
Although the District Attorney’s fabrications overshadow the failings of the defense attorneys, the defense team clearly deserves to be called out as well. The court found that not only did the defense fail to challenge the incorrect assertions of the District Attorney, but as it turned out, they failed to even read the DNA report. How did the court know that the defense never read the report? Because the defense neither requested nor received these crucial materials before “defending” a man on trial for his life.
If you find it appalling that a defense attorney could fail to fulfill his responsibility in such a remarkable way, then you should probably sit down for this next part. Johnson had two attorneys at trial, Michael Coard and Bernard Siegel. When asked about their “trial strategy” of failing to examine the DNA report, Coard threw Mr. Siegel under the bus.
I gave him absolute sole discretion on the DNA. He felt he knew enough to not bring on an expert.
Siegel failed to respond to Coard’s allegations because he has been dead for two years. It’s unclear whether his death related in any way to a bus.
Aside from Johnson’s appellate attorney, it appears that every player in this story failed to rise to their duty. ADA Barry paraded his “airtight” DNA evidence in front of the jury while undoubtedly possessing the knowledge that he was lying to their faces.
Judge Lillian Harris Ransom was presented with two villains responsible for this injustice and chose to place the blame upon the shoulders of the far less culpable party. She reversed because of the laziness of the defense attorneys, but failed to even mention the far more egregious conduct of the DA in prosecuting Johnson based upon wholly false evidence.
And let us not forgot Kareem Johnson’s trial attorneys. These two licensed attorneys walked into a murder trial based almost entirely upon DNA evidence without ever even requesting the DNA reports or paperwork. They both failed to uphold the awesome responsibility that comes with defending the rights and fate of another person. But, hey, at least one of them didn’t blame a dead man for his failure to do his own job.
How is it, in a case that finds examples of some of the worst qualities of our broken criminal justice system (dishonesty, complicity, laziness), that this case has not received more attention? A man was sentenced to death based upon false-evidence. Where is the outrage?
Well, there might be a simple answer to that. There is another person to add to the list of people who acted shamefully – Kareem Johnson, the defendant. At the time of Johnson’s trial for this murder, he was already serving a life sentence for shooting and killing 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs in an apparent gang shootout. This part of the story brings into stark focus the dilemma facing defense attorneys and reformers every day.
The fact that Pennsylvania is probably not going to kill someone based upon false evidence is a victory and should be celebrated. But this is not a Rubin “Hurricane” Carter celebration. Kareem Johnson’s victory will be celebrated by a very small segment of America, namely, people who understand that if the rights of the terrible are not protected, the rights of everyone else will be lost.
Kareem Johnson decided to play gangster shoot ‘em up like so many other misguided and/or horrible people do all the time. However, on that night in 2002, his bullet hit a child. There is a natural urge towards indifference for any good fortune that may come Johnson’s way (such as a reversed death sentence).
But his case appears to be yet another missed opportunity to hold District Attorneys and judges and yes, even defense attorneys, accountable for corrupting or failing the system, society and defendants. Although we might like to think that Kareem Johnson’s crime-filled past fueled the failures of his case, this has happened far too many times to the guilty and innocent alike. This time, a monster was saved from the gallows. But we can rest assured that since the lessons of his case have gone unlearned, that this same kind of injustice will continue.