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Jefferson County DA asks for new trial for man sentenced to death

Jefferson County’s district attorney today has asked for a new trial for a man serving on Alabama’s death row, convicted of the shooting death of Jefferson County deputy William Hardy decades ago. 

And he’s not alone in that request. The lead prosecutor who convicted Toforest Johnson of shooting Jefferson County deputy William Hardy in 1995 is concerned about the case, and has joined in the district attorney’s request for a new trial. 

“A prosecutor’s duty is not merely to secure convictions, but to seek justice,” Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr wrote in his brief to the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court in Jefferson County. “After reviewing the circumstances of Mr. Johnson’s conviction and his subsequent Brady claim, the District Attorney has determined that its duty to seek justice requires intervention in the case based on a couple of factors.” 

Shanaye Poole, Johnson’s daughter, told APR on Friday that when she read Carr’s brief she screamed.

“We’re just really grateful to Danny for taking action,” Poole said. “That’s really all we ever asked for.”

Prosecutors in Jonhson’s trial presented no physical evidence or eyewitnesses tying Johnson to the shooting, and built the case on 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 shooting Hardy. 

Ellison was paid $5,000 from the state to testify against Johnson, a fact that wasn’t made known to defense attorneys at the time. 

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Carr wrote to the court on Friday that the state, in several trials for people connected to the case, presented five different theories about who shot deputy Hardy, the case was originally based on testimony from a woman who admitted to repeatedly lying to police and prosecutors, and under oath. 

Carr also wrote that several people who have said they saw Johnson in another area of town at the time of the murder did not testify during the trial.

The lead prosecutor in Johnson’s trial met with Carr, the district attorney wrote to the court, and expressed concerns about the case “and supports this request as well.” 

“It is the District Attorney’s position that in the interest of justice, Mr. Johnson who has spent more than two decades on Death Row, be granted a new trial,” Carr wrote. 

Poole said the family is going to continue to work to get her father home “so he can live his life, because it was stripped away from him.”

Ty Alper, one of Johnson’s attorney’s, told APR on Friday that Carr’s decision was welcomed news. 

“We’ve been trying for almost two decades to get someone in a position of power to seriously look at injustice in this case,” said Alper said. “And we’re really grateful that Danny Carr took the time to really review what is a complicated case, and concluded that our client is deserving of a new trial.” 

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“That’s really admirable and significant and it shows that he is willing to walk the walk when it comes to fairness and justice, which is what you would hope out of a district attorney’s office,” Alper said. 

Poole thanked Alper for his decades of work on her father’s case, and said “there’s nothing I can do to repay him.”

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. 

The case is now in the hands of Attorney General Steven Marshall in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Marshall will have to agree to allow the case to revert to the Circuit Court for a new trial to take place.

Poole said the family is well aware that it’s not over yet.

“We are excited, and we’re hopeful,” she said. “But we, we understand that we still have a bigger mountain to climb.”

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Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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