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EXCLUSIVE: Jurors Join Growing Support for New Trial in Alabama Death Row Case

3 jurors from Toforest Johnson’s trial say they’re now “disturbed” by his conviction & death sentence
Jurors Jay Crane and Monique Hicks
Jurors Jay Crane and Monique Hicks(WBRC)
Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 3:08 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 16, 2021 at 3:26 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Three jurors who voted to convict Toforest Johnson of capital murder in 1998 are speaking out in favor of a new trial. In a highly unusual development, the two men and one woman said in separate interviews that if they knew then what they know now, they would never have voted for guilt let alone recommended a death sentence.

Jay Crane, Matthew Young and Monique Hicks all served on the jury in Johnson’s second trial, and all three voted to convict him of capital murder in the shooting death of Deputy Sheriff William G. Hardy, a crime Johnson has always maintained he did not commit. Prosecutors never settled on a theory of who committed the murder, arguing five different theories of the crime at five different court proceedings.

All three jurors, in interviews with WBRC, said they’ve been horrified to learn about new details from recent media coverage. All three said they believe Johnson deserves a new trial.

“I can’t go back and change my vote, but that’s why I’m speaking out,” said Monique Hicks, who was 27-years old when she served on the jury.

“When you look back at all the stuff the jury did not know, I feel like we were used like pawns in a chess game, not even knowing we were being used. It is very disturbing to read all this now.”

One key fact the jury never knew is that prosecutors argued a completely different theory of the murder - that another man, Ardragus Ford, killed Deputy Hardy - at a subsequent trial.

“This is supposed to be an honest system,” said Jay Crane. “It’s supposed to work, and they (prosecutors) misled (jurors). I am very disappointed. And I feel sad for the victim’s family because they haven’t gotten any justice. They don’t have the right person in prison.”

Toforest Johnson (SOURCE: Shanaye Poole)
Toforest Johnson (SOURCE: Shanaye Poole)((SOURCE: Shanaye Poole))

At Johnson’s trial, the state’s only evidence was testimony from Violet Ellison, a woman who claimed she overheard someone who identified himself as “Toforest” admit to the murder on a three-way phone call from jail. Ellison had never met Johnson and had never heard his voice.

At the time they voted to convict, the jurors did not know that Ellison was eventually paid in exchange for her testimony. Johnson’s lawyers have alleged that she was motivated to testify by the large reward publicly offered in the case. Their case was bolstered recently by the discovery of paperwork from the District Attorney’s office that states Ellison came forward “pursuant to” the public reward offer. The Alabama Attorney General’s office finally disclosed to Johnson’s legal team in 2019 that Ellison received the $5000 payment.

“That’s a lot of money,” said Matthew Young. “Is she just after the money? How truthful is the testimony? I certainly think that would be something that would need to be discussed and considered.”

The jurors had seen recent media accounts related to the extraordinary decision of District Attorney Danny Carr to call for a new trial. Carr asked Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam in June 2020 to order a new trial, writing that his “duty to seek justice requires intervention in this case.”

Jeff Wallace, the lead trial prosecutor, joined Carr’s request for a new trial. This was significant for the jurors.

Monique Hicks first began having doubts about Johnson’s guilt after reading the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, wrongly convicted in a 1985 murder case in Jefferson County and freed from prison in 2015 after 28 years on death row. A few weeks later, Hicks saw media coverage about Johnson’s appeals and was shocked to learn that prosecutors presented different theories of the crime and that Violet Ellison was paid for her testimony.

“I just sobbed,” Hicks said. “I think we convicted an innocent man. I feel a lot of grief, shame, and guilt for having been a part of this. I feel grief deep in my soul. I can’t imagine what this has been like for him and his family. He needs a new trial.”

Earlier this year, seven “friend of the court” briefs were filed in support of Johnson by former prosecutors and judges, including former Alabama Chief Justice Drayton Nabers, Jr., former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, and former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, as well as Birmingham faith leaders and legal scholars.

Johnson’s appeal on a prosecutorial misconduct claim is currently pending in the Court of Criminal Appeals. The request for a new trial pending in front of Judge Pulliam is on hold pending the outcome of the appellate proceedings. The appellate court has not indicated when it would issue a ruling in the case.

The three jurors all said they’re hopeful that speaking publicly in support of a new trial might make a difference.

“I guess I always took for granted that the court system would do its job, but what makes it even more upsetting is the fact that he might be totally innocent, not even associated with the crime at all,” said Young. “That’s troubling, that I had some sort of role in it, even though I was just trying to do my civic duty and work off the information I was presented. It’s disturbing to know the system didn’t work for him. I fully support him getting a new trial.”

Donna and Toforest Johnson at Holman Prison visitation.
Donna and Toforest Johnson at Holman Prison visitation.(Donna Johnson)

Beth Shelburne is an Investigative Reporter for the Campaign for Smart Justice with the ACLU of Alabama. She is a former WBRC Anchor, Reporter and Investigator.

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