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Family of Alabama death row inmate hopes for new trial

Eddie Burkhalter



Recent news coverage in major outlets of the story of Alabama death row inmate Toforest Johnson’s case is giving his family hope that he’ll get a new trial and a chance at freedom. 

The family awaits a judge’s ruling on whether he could get that new trial. 

“It’s especially difficult around the holidays,” said Johnson’s 27-year-old daughter, Shanaye Poole, speaking to APR on Tuesday. “But we just have to continue to stay positive and maintain hope. I feel like that’s all we’ve really had for all these years, is hope that eventually justice will prevail.” 

Poole was just five-years-old when her father was sentenced to death in connection with the July 19, 1995, shooting death of Jefferson County deputy William Hardy outside a hotel, where Hardy was working as a security guard. 

Prosecutors in his case presented no physical evidence or eye witnesses tying Johnson to the shooting, and instead built the case around testimony from a single witness,  Violet Ellison, who said that while eavesdropping on a phone call from a man in jail she heard an inmate who she thought to be Johnson admit to the shooting Hardy. 

A Sept. 5 opinion essay in The Washington Post described a trial rife with problems and a witness who received $5,000 from the state to testify against Johnson, a fact that wasn’t made known to defense attorneys at the time. 

Johnson and a friend, Ardragus Ford, were both charged and tried separately for Hardy’s murder. 

In Ford’s trial prosecutors said Ford pulled the trigger. In Johnson’s prosecutors said Johnson was the shooter. Ford was acquitted and Johnson’s first trial ended in a hung jury, but a second trial in 1998 resulted in him receiving the death penalty. 


Both Ford and Johnson’s charges stemmed from statements made at the time by a 15-year-old girl who later admitted under oath that shed lied to police because she wanted the reward money and because she felt pressure from police, according to The Appeal

Johnson’s family now awaits a decision by Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Teresa Pulliam, who ruled over a hearing on June 6 in which Johnson’s attorneys argued that he deserves a new trial because of the prosecution’s failure to disclose at the first trial that the witness would be paid reward money. 

Johnson’s attorneys argued that the prosecution’s failure to disclose ran afoul of the Brady doctrine, a court precedent that establishes that prosecutors must turn over all evidence that might exonerate a defendant, including any evidence that goes to the credibility of a witness. 

At the June 6 hearing Ellison testified that she hadn’t known about the reward money when she testified in the 1998 trial, according to WBRC 6, and had only learned about the money in 2001 when the District Attorney’s office contacted her about the $5,000. 

Johnson’s attorneys argued that it was unlikely Ellison didn’t know about the reward money due to extensive news coverage at the time and the fact that Ellison knew Hardy and his wife, according to WBRC 6. 

His attorneys told the court that they’d learned that there might have been reward money in 2003, but that the state didn’t disclose that fact until January, when Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office produced documents about the reward that the DA’s office said had been “misfiled.” 

One of those documents was a letter from then-Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber to then-Gov. Don Seigelman on Aug. 7, 2001, asking him to award the $5,000 to Ellison. The letters stated that Ellison “pursuant to the public officer of a reward, gave information leading to the conviction of Toforest Johnson…” 

On Dec. 12 The Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit that works to exonerate the innocent, filed a brief asking the court to grant Johnson a new trial based on the Brady  doctrine and what the nonprofit said are numerous other problems with Johnson’s conviction. 

“If ever a case bore the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction, Toforest Johnson’s is it,” wrote attorneys for the nonprofit to the court. “…Over the course of three years, the State presented five different theories regarding who killed Deputy Hardy.” 

Attorneys for The Innocence Project also note in the court filing that the prosecutor during Johnson’s trials has since testified that he has doubts about the strength of the state’s case against Johnson. 

“In 2014, prosecutor Jeff Wallace testified under oath that he “[did not] think the State’s case [against Mr. Johnson] was very strong . . . because it depended on the testimony of Violet Ellison,” the court filing reads. 

Ty Alper, one of Johnson’s attorneys, sent a statement to APR on Monday on the pending court decision. Johnson is represented by attorneys with the Death Penalty Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law and the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. 

“This will be Mr. Johnson’s 25th Christmas locked up, away from his family.  What we want now for Mr. Johnson is a fair trial in front of a jury that hears all of the evidence,” Alper’s statement reads. 

If Pulliam grants Johnson a new trial it will be up to Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr to decide whether to prosecute. 

Carr, elected to office in  Nov, 2018, became the county’s first black district attorney, and ran on a platform of building credibility for the office among the community and increasing transparency, according to several news accounts. 

According to a questionnaire created by the Fair Punishment Project that Carr filled out prior to his election, Carr agreed to establish a special unit tasked with examining post-conviction cases to “identify and correct wrongful prosecutions.” 

Carr hasn’t made public statements about Johnson’s case, and APR’s questions to Carr’s office on Monday hadn’t been answered as of Tuesday evening.   

“I believe in my Dad. I know that he is innocent,” Poole said, speaking to APR on Tuesday. 

“I’ve never heard him complain. Not once. He’s been able to find light in such a  horrific situation,” Poole said. “So we just have to confide in each other and love on each other until he’s able to come home.” 

Recent coverage of Johnson’s plight by The Washington Post and The Appeal have given the family a new sense of hope, Poole said. 

“Finally we’re getting some traction. Finally the world is able to hear my Dad’s story, and it needs to be heard,” Poole said. 

Now 27, Poole graduated from the University of Alabama in 2014 and works as a pharmaceutical representative. She said she, her three brothers and her sister hope the new district attorney, Danny Carr, can help her family receive long-awaited justice. 

“Danny has an opportunity to right a terrible wrong and we are hopeful that given the history of this case he will take action and after all of these years my father will receive the justice that he deserves,” Poole said. 

Poole described her father a “strong-minded” and ever hopeful, as someone who throughout his years at the Holman prison in Escambia County as kept his own hope alive that he’d be free one day. 

“He’d rather think of the positive outcomes than the negative,” Poole said of her father. “That could eat away at a person, but I think he’s just maintained his faith and he knows that he is an innocent man.”




Three more prison workers, another inmate test positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter



Three more prison workers have tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the sixth prison worker to self-report positive test results in two days. 

Additionally, a man serving at the St. Clair Correctional Facility also tested positive for the virus, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) announced in a Friday press release. 

Three workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka all self-reported positive test results and are self-quarantined, according to the release. That makes 12 workers with confirmed coronavirus cases at that facility, and 61 cases among staff across the state’s prisons, although 16 have been cleared to return to work. 

The man serving at St. Clair had been treated at a local hospital earlier this month for a preexisting medical condition and tested negative for COVID-19 at the time, according to ADOC. He returned to a local hospital a short time later and tested positive for COVID-19, and remains at the hospital for treatment, according to the release.

There were four confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the St. Clair prison as of Thursday, according to ADOC, and one inmate there, the terminally-ill 66-year-old Dave Thomas, died at a local hospital less than 24 hours after testing positive for the virus. One worker at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19 but has since been cleared to return to work. 

A small living area in St. Clair prison’s infirmary, where the man was living, has been placed on level two quarantine, meaning incarcerated people there will be restricted to their living areas for meals and all other activities, according to ADOC. 

The entire infirmary has been placed on level one quarantine, so inmates inside will be monitored for symptoms and have temperatures checked twice daily. 


There have been 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, and three remained active as of Friday, according to ADOC. All of the inmates who’ve tested positive for the virus had preexisting medical conditions and were tested for COVID-19 at hospitals. 

Testing of inmates in general remains very low, however. Less than one percent of the state’s inmate population has been tested, or 156 of approximately 22,000. 

Prison reform advocates have expressed concern that without broader testing, the extent of the virus’s spread inside the overcrowded prisons won’t be known, and more people will become infected due to the spread from asymptomatic people. 

The state’s prisons were at 170 percent capacity in January, the last month in which ADOC has made monthly statistical reports publicly available.

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Alabama Parole and Probation Officers supervising nearly 9,000 violent criminals

Brandon Moseley



The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles released a report Thursday that was shared with state legislators and the media this week that shows Alabama’s 300 parole and probation officers are tasked with supervising 8,993 people convicted of violent crimes.

The officers are tasked with supervising more than 27,000 Alabama offenders as well as more than 3,600 offenders from other states who chose to move to Alabama following their incarceration in other states. Those are just the active cases.

There are an additional 22,947 inactive offenders for a total caseload of 50,055.

“The supervision of all these offenders that our officers provide daily is crucial to the safety of Alabamians and we are thankful for the selfless and dedicated work of these law enforcement officers,” said Bureau Director Charlie Graddick in a statement.

Graddick said that the Bureau put nine new officers into the field last week to begin supervising parolees and probationers and hopes to hire up to 138 more officers over the next three years — if the budget allows.

In the session that recently ended, the Legislature cut the bureau’s budget nearly in half.

“We are in need of more officers as we work to reduce caseloads,” Graddick said.

The report shows that 79 percent of the Alabama clients the bureau supervises were granted probation by judges throughout the state.


Sixteen percent of the Alabama offenders are parolees who were granted release from prison by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Of the 6,078 Alabama parolees being supervised, 58 percent are violent offenders, some requiring much more intensive supervision.

Alabama has historically underfunded and understaffed the aging prison facilities managed by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is tasked with attempting to safely reintegrate parolees into society as well as to rehabilitate offenders sentenced to probation so that they do not re-offend and have to join the state’s prison population again.

A recent Department of Justice report claimed that Alabama’s prisons are among the most dangerous in the country.

The state has a critical need to increase prison capacity to reduce prison overcrowding and protect the public from crime and violence.


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Three more prison workers test positive for COVID-19, testing of inmates remains low

Eddie Burkhalter



Two workers at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one employee at the Kilby Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday evening.

The latest confirmed cases among staff bring the total of COVID-19 cases among prison workers to 58. Twelve of those workers have since recovered, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release Thursday. 

ADOC is investigating to determine whether inmates or staff had “direct, prolonged exposure to these staff members,” according to the release. Anyone exposed to the infected staff members will be advised to contact their health care providers and self-quarantine for two weeks, according to the release. 

The latest case at Bullock prison makes 5 workers there who’ve tested positive for coronavirus, and the worker at Kilby prison also became the fifth employee at that facility with a confirmed case of the virus.

There have been confirmed COVID-19 cases in 18 of the state’s 27 facilities, with the Ventress Correctional Facility in Barbour County with the most infected workers, with 12 confirmed cases among staff.

As of noon Thursday, there were no additional confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, according to ADOC. Of the 11 confirmed cases among inmates, two remain active, according to the department. 

The extent of the spread of the virus among inmates is less clear, however, due to a lack of testing. Just 155 inmates of approximately 22,000 had been tested as of Tuesday, according to the department. Test results for six inmates were still pending. 


An ADOC spokeswoman was working to respond to APR’s questions sent Wednesday asking whether the department had plans to broaden testing among inmates to include asymptomatic people, but APR had not received responses as of Thursday evening. 

ADOC this week completed installation of infrared camera systems at major facilities that can detect if a person attempting to enter or exit the facility is running a temperature greater than 100 degrees, according to the release Thursday. 

“This added layer of screening increases accuracy of readings while reducing the frequency with which individuals must be in close proximity at points of entry/exit,” the release states.

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More confirmed COVID-19 cases among state inmates, prison staff

Eddie Burkhalter



Two more inmates in Alabama prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, while confirmed cases among prison staff continue to outpace cases among inmates. Four additional workers have also tested positive, bringing the total to 55. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a press release Wednesday evening announced that two inmates who had been housed at the infirmary at the Kilby Correctional Facility have tested positive for the virus. Those men, who were being treated for preexisting medical conditions, have been taken to a local hospital for treatment of COVID-19, according to the release. 

The infirmary at Kilby prison has been placed on level-one quarantine, meaning inmates there are to be monitored for symptoms of coronavirus and have their temperatures checked twice daily, according to ADOC. 

Two more workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women self-reported positive test results for COVID-19, bringing the total of confirmed cases among staff at the facility to nine. 

One employee at the Bullock Correctional Facility also tested positive for COVID-19, according to the press release, becoming the third worker at the prison with a confirmed case. An inmate at the prison had also previously tested positive for coronavirus. 

One worker at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility, which cares for older and sick inmates at most risk from serious complications and death from coronavirus, has also tested positive for COVID-19. 

ADOC on May 6 announced that an inmate at Hamilton Aged and Infirmed tested positive for the virus. A worker at the facility told APR earlier this month that staff there was concerned that the virus may have entered the facility after a correctional officer was ordered to sit with an inmate from another facility at a hospital, where the man later tested positive for COVID-19 and died the following day. 


That man, 66-year-old Dave Thomas, tested positive for COVID-19 on May 6, according to the ADOC, and died within 24 hours of receiving the test results.

Despite the inmate’s confirmed COVID-19 test results, the correctional officer was ordered to return to work at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility without self-quarantining or being tested for the virus, the worker told APR

An ADOC spokeswoman told APR that all correctional officers who had contact with the deceased inmate all received tests for COVID-19 and reported negative results. The worker says that’s untrue, and that the officer hasn’t been tested. 

ADOC does not test staff for COVID-19 but requests that those who test positive self-report to the department. ADOC has said that inmates are only tested if they’re exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and only at the recommendation of a physician. 

As of Wednesday, 11 inmates in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and just two cases remain active, according to ADOC. 

As of Tuesday, 152 of approximately 22,000 state inmates had been tested for the virus, according to the department. 

It was unclear Wednesday whether ADOC plans to begin testing inmates who may not be exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. 

Attempts to reach an ADOC spokeswoman Wednesday evening weren’t immediately successful. 

Some state prison systems have begun testing all inmates, and the results of those tests have shown the virus had spread in many facilities among inmates who showed no symptoms. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections tested all 38,130 state prisoners over a 15-day span and found that 3,263 of them tested positive, according to MLive

“The vast majority of the prisoners we found who tested positive had no symptoms and were making it more challenging to control the spread of this illness.” Heidi Washington, Michigan Department of Corrections director, said in a written statement, according to MLive.

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