After Doing 13 Years for a Murder He Didn't Commit, Exonerated Man Adjusts to Life on the Outside
It has become a familiar scene.
A person just out of prison for a crime they did not commit is greeted by dozens — the press, well-wishers, their legal team and loved ones who eagerly awaited their return — in an emotional and overwhelming outpouring of support.
So was the case with 34-year-old Lamar Johnson, who walked free on Sept. 19 after more than 13 years behind bars for a murder he had nothing to do with.
Cameras captured Johnson’s ear-to-ear grin as he reunited with his family before heading home to Baltimore, Md.
He got his long-awaited McDonald’s meal — a Big Mac and fries — and later ate a steak, and through it all, his family was by his side.
But as things quieted down, Johnson found himself drawn to a space where he could catch his breath.
“The first moment I had alone, I went into the bathroom,” he said. “I was just sitting there and just thinking about the past 13 and a half years.”
Forty-five minutes passed while he stayed in the bathroom. His mom and sister kept asking him if he was all right. He told them he was getting his thoughts together.
“And then I knew why I was sitting in that bathroom so long,” he said. “Because that bathroom was about the same size as that cell I was in for all those years. And it felt so comfortable, like something I was used to. But I’m bringing myself out of that.”
Johnson was just 20 when he was arrested for the murder of a 31-year-old man who was gunned down in broad daylight.
Carlos Sawyer was shot in the stomach, shoulder and buttocks while standing on the corner of McElderry Street and Patterson Park Avenue in East Baltimore on March 26, 2004.
Police followed a lead that the shooter went by a particular nickname and ultimately misidentified Johnson as that person. He was arrested on April 1, 2004.
“I said, ‘I don’t know that man.’ [The detective] said ‘we got two eyewitnesses who pointed your picture out, who identified you as the shooter and you’re going to be charged,’” Johnson said. “I remember I was crying. I was telling them, ‘I didn’t do this.’”
Johnson was charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty in 2005. After sitting through a trial in which witnesses said Johnson simply resembled the shooter — but no physical evidence tied him to the crime — he was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life, plus 20 years in prison.
“They say your 20s are supposed to be the best years of your life,” he said. “I felt like my whole future was just snatched away from me for something I didn't do. I was frozen. It was like my life was on hold. Everybody else’s life was still going ... Everybody else was having kids. They was working, preparing to go to college or getting jobs [and] enjoying life. My life, it was frozen. It was frozen. It was like I was just trapped.”
Five years into his sentence, Johnson came across his first inkling of hope.
“I was in Jessup Correctional Institution at the time,” he said. “I was sitting in the day room playing cards and I seen a poster on the wall. ‘Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.’ And I looked at it and I smiled when I seen it. My gut was telling me to write to these people. I said ‘This is the [Mid-Atlantic] Innocence Project. I’m innocent! I need to write them.’”
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, or MAIP, is a nonprofit at The George Washington University that provides investigative and legal assistance to prisoners in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia who claim they’re innocent.
The organization receives about 400 letters a year, but Johnson’s stood out.
“Lamar is a delightful human being,” MAIP Legal Director Parisa Dehghani-Tafti told InsideEdition.com.
“He is imminently patient, he is just one of the sweetest people I have come across in my life, let alone my career. He always trusted me, and he really did tell the truth I think from the beginning… so it was very easy to feel confident that we were taking on the right case, and it was easy to follow up the leads that he was giving us because he wasn’t leading us astray.”
The team signed on in 2010 to prove Johnson’s innocence.
Along with attorney Dave Benowitz, a criminal defense lawyer with more than 22 years’ experience, they re-investigated the entire case, top to bottom.
Over the next seven years, MAIP ultimately discovered three witnesses who independently confirmed Johnson was not the gunman.
That evidence was presented to Baltimore prosecutors, who along with MAIP, asked the court to release Johnson.
The world Johnson returned to in 2017 was a very different place than the one he left in 2004.
His grandmother’s home, which he was on the way to when he was arrested, was bought by Johns Hopkins and is now a vacant lot.
Much of Baltimore has changed since his incarceration, he said.
“I had to ask my brother, ‘What about this spot?’ [He’d say] ‘Man, that ain’t been up in 10 years,” Johnson said.
And two months before Johnson was arrested, a little website called Facebook was launched.
“Technology is way further [along] than from 13 and a half years ago,” said Johnson, who now has his own iPhone. “I’ve got a lot of learning to know how to work that cell phone,” he said. “You can pay your bills, you can do everything from it. It’s amazing... I didn’t even really know how to send emails or texts. I’m still learning.”
He’s also worked at getting reacquainted with his family.
“At first it was like, getting to know them again, because in 13 and a half years, people change, people grow up,” Johnson said. “My little sisters, they were 8 years old at the time I got arrested... now they’re grown women with kids, working and everything.”
Johnson lives with his mother, Kathy Taylor, who was his rock during his time in prison.
“My mom, she always believed in my innocence. Always tell me that she’s praying for me, that she needed me to be strong,” Johnson said.
His strength was never needed more than when she battled breast cancer.
“I know he says I kept him going, but he kept me going through the whole ordeal,” Johnson’s mother, Kathy Taylor, said. “He was [my] main... reason for living, for doing treatment and all that. Because I didn’t want to do the treatment, but I didn’t want nothing to happen to me while he was inside. So I went through with it and I persevered.”
Taylor recently celebrated one year cancer-free.
“And now Lamar is home,” Taylor said. “So I’m looking forward to the holidays and, you know, all the time that we missed together we can’t make up for, but we’re going to try. We’re going to try.”
The pair spends as much time together as possible, enjoying the simple luxury of sitting without time constraints or rules about touching or a nearly three-hour drive to visit him.
“They have been supportive of him since the day he was arrested,” attorney Dave Benowitz said. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen other situations where after people get incarcerated, family members just drop off, through no fault of their own. They never abandoned him; they never wavered in their support.”
That support has become a key part in Johnson’s ability to get back on his feet.
He left prison with $2,000 to his name — a gift from an anonymous donor whose identity is still unknown — and a prison identification card that linked him to his incarceration.
“I’m very grateful and thankful to be exonerated,” Johnson said. “I got my freedom back, but that’s where the real challenges begin when you’re exonerated. I didn’t have ID. I didn’t have a job. If it wasn’t for my mom I’d be homeless, because I don’t have no credit. I’m not on paper. It’s like you’re put out there with nothing. Like, okay, ‘You was innocent. You’re exonerated, but now go fix your life.’ Okay, how am I supposed to do that right away?”
The system is largely not geared toward supporting exonerated people as they transition from prison to freedom, according to those on the front lines of this issue.
“I’ve had clients that have been given their commissary money and a jacket and put on a bus and were sort of told, ‘Good luck,’” Dehghani-Tafti said. “One client was put on a bus in Arizona… and they gave him $50 and a lightweight wind jacket, and sent him to the east coast in the middle of a blizzard.”
Luckily for Johnson, he had somewhere to go.
“Lamar is blessed because he has an extremely supportive family,” she continued. “That was one of my huge concerns, when his mother became ill, was that I really wanted him to get exonerated, and I really wanted nothing to happen to her because... I wanted her to see him out of prison, but I also knew that she would be the pillar upon which he could rebuild his life.”
Johnson has also had the support of the innocence community, including MAIP, which does as much as it can, given its shoestring budget. He’s also benefited from Healing Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based organization “focused on recovery and healing for those harmed by wrongful convictions.”
The nonprofit works to support survivors and victims of crimes, as well as people wrongly convicted of perpetrating them.
“Healing Justice, who we’ve affiliated with, has designed a program to help exonerees get back on their feet, and they’ve spent a lot of years listening to what exonerees need, and now they’re in a position where they’re implementing it,” Dehghani-Tafti said.
They helped Johnson go through the arduous process of securing identification, which took nearly a month.
It’s daunting enough for someone who’s used to functioning in a community, let alone someone who’s not, Dehghani-Tafti said.
“He’s coming out with no papers essentially,” she said. “So he’s in a position where he literally has to start from scratch to build... the identification process. And then get a bank account, because you can’t get a bank account without an ID. You can’t apply for jobs without an ID. It’s taking every little step to establish a life.”
It’s in contrast to the systems in place for parolees, who come out much more prepared for life beyond prison walls.
“There is some degree of preparation for what’s happening outside,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “[Parolees] come out of the prison with an ID. They come out of prison with sort of a home plan… For exonerees there is no tether, and so it becomes more difficult.”
Johnson also recognized that the psychological ramifications of his imprisonment did not end when he walked free.
“That first week, I really didn’t get too much sleep,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep. I thought I would be able to sleep better being the nightmare was over with, but I would go to sleep two, three hours.”
Crowds were an issue, too.
“I didn’t feel comfortable because in prison, you’ve always got to look over your shoulders,” he said. “I was pretty much scared to go anywhere. My brother took me to the mall. I was happy to be around people in society, but as soon as I got my stuff, I was ready to leave and go straight to the house.
“I would think that I would want to be out more, but I didn’t feel comfortable with really going nowhere. [I’d think] I’m going to get arrested for something else I didn’t do.”
When he was released, Johnson knew this would be something he’d have to address head-on.
“He knows what he needs to work on and to keep the attitude he has; he’s going to do some work,” Benowitz said. “I really expect him to do great things now that he’s out. He’s got the right frame of mind.”
“He has an optimism and worldview that is exceedingly positive,” she said. “I don’t usually make promises to my clients, but something about Lamar and the timing of his mom getting sick; I made them the promise that I was going to get him out. One way or another — legally — we were going to fight this and we were going to fight it until we got him out. And I think he inspires that in people. I think he inspires a trust, I think he inspires warmth. He shows his vulnerability, and I think that it’s contagious.”
His focus, even while in prison, was to avoid becoming hardened by what had happened.
“I went through those stages — bitter, frustration," he said. "Bitter at the detectives. I was angry, but my mom and Parisa, they always told me, ‘Nobody likes vileness and vileness doesn’t change nothing. Just be patient and be optimistic and think positive.’ “Mistakes happen and I’m free now,” he said.
It’s something that comes easier to him now — a goal largely pushed by his mother.
“I didn’t want him to feel bitter,” Taylor said. “I wanted him to take it as a lesson, you know? That sometimes bad things happen to good people.”
Johnson smiles often.
Anytime he makes eye contact with someone, he meets their gaze with an ear-to-ear grin.
Anytime he interacts with his sisters, his brother, his mother, his niece and his nephew, he beams.
And anytime he speaks about his newfound freedom, it’s with that signature smile.
“Even though I was innocent, I believe everything happened for a reason,” Johnson said. “Maybe this is my purpose in life — to tell my story.”
He spends much of his time now with family, helping with his toddler niece and nephew, as well as other chores around the home he gladly shares with loved ones.
He spends time with his brother, who has taken to showing him the changes to Baltimore since his arrest.
“Basically just getting some fresh air when I can,” he said, smiling as he came to another realization. “I can get fresh air whenever I want now."
Just being able to just walk around and see how everything has changed,” he continued. “I don’t take nothing for granted, even the small things. Just being able to walk around; I know it may not seem like too much, but after being locked in a cage for all those years, you appreciate the smallest things.”
He started his first job in November.
“I had to fill out the application on the computer and [the employer] asked where my last job [was],” he said. “I couldn’t tell her.”
Instead, he pulled up a news article on his exoneration.
The employer hired Johnson on the spot.
“I’m ready to start making my own money and help my mom out,” he said.
He’s lost most of his friends from his teenage years, keeping in touch with only one person he knew from life before his arrest.
“When you get a life sentence for a crime you didn’t commit, you really see who loves you because people know you’re innocent, but do they really want to take time out of their day to be there and support you?” Johnson said.
Going forward, Johnson wants to get a degree in business management and buy into a McDonald’s franchise. He also wants to get a degree in communications, in part to further his goal of becoming an advocate for the wrongly convicted.
Since 1989, there have been at least 2,144 persons exonerated in the United States, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Their combined time in prison totals more than 18,590 years.
“I want to be just a voice for them because there's other innocent guys in prison," Johnson said. "If I could just help one person get exonerated, that would mean the world to me. Because Miss Parisa — they believed in me and I would like to give somebody else that blessing. An innocent man should never go to prison for a crime he didn't do. That has to be fixed so that never happens again. The reality of it, it will happen again. Because I'm not the first person that's been exonerated and I won't be the last.”