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DNA bill awaits signature

By Ed Brock

Calvin Johnson Jr. spent 16 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He wants to make sure others don't suffer the same consequence.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. David Adelman, D-Atlanta, that sets the conditions under which somebody convicted of one or more of the most violent felonies can petition for a new trial, is awaiting Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature.

The bill allows a new trial if "the identity of the defendant was an issue at the trial, if reliable evidence can be extracted from existing evidence, if it is reasonable to believe results of DNA testing would have affected the trial's outcome and if the evidence was not previously tested," according to Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor's office.

"This law enhances confidence in the judicial system and ensures that the right person is in jail for these serious violent crimes," Taylor said in statement.

Johnson, 45, of Jonesboro, was arrested in 1983 in connection with the rape of a College Park woman and convicted by an all-white jury largely on the testimony of the woman and others who said they saw him prowling the area before the rape. In 1999, with the help of the Innocence Project, Johnson had new DNA analysis technology applied to old semen samples collected at the time of his arrest. The results proved that someone else had committed the crime. The actual rapist was never arrested.

A little more than a month ago he testified at a Georgia Senate committee hearing in support of the law.

"I told them my story, who I was, why I was there and how DNA had affected me in a positive way," Johnson said. "It's a good bill. It's something that's needed. If we're using this technology to convict people why shouldn't we use it to exonerate people?"

Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller, the man who helped to put Johnson in jail, joined him for that testimony.

"We were cordial, he was friendly," Johnson said. "We talked about the bill and each other's families."

Johnson's case was one reason why Keller wanted to participate in the bill's creation.

"I think he has a tremendous attitude," Keller said. "You have to admire anyone with the attitude he has based on the experiences he's had."

Getting a DNA bill passed was a legislative priority of district attorneys across the state, Keller said. Originally some wanted the bill to cover all crimes and not just death penalty cases as originally proposed, so a compromise was struck by covering the seven most major crimes.

"It would cover the cases that needed to be covered but at the same time it limits it to what the state can afford to handle," Keller said.

Henry County District Attorney Tommy Floyd also had a hand in the statute's design. Floyd called the bill "fair and balanced."

"I think it will be helpful. It will give some guidance to that new technology," Floyd said. "I think (false convictions) are rare but it happens."

As of February 2003 there were about 13,000 people in Georgia prisons for murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, rape, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated sodomy and aggravated child molestation. Johnson, who is still involved with the Innocence Project, said that he's been told that around six out of 10 inmates who approach the program for help are actually shown to be guilty by the DNA tests.

But for those who are exonerated, the Project has begun a new program in which Johnson is once again lending a helping hand.

The Life After Exoneration Project helps those newly freed readjust to life.

"The Innocence Project works so hard to get these guys released, but once they're released, what happens then?" Johnson said.

The biggest issues facing the exonerated is difficulty getting a job despite the fact that they've been exonerated and the need for health care and coping with the mental scars of incarceration.

In "Exit to Freedom," a book he co-authored with Dr. Greg Hampikian at Clayton College and State University that will be released Sept. 15, Johnson recalls what happened before and after his arrest and release, even things he'd rather not have known.

"It's a full, complete book. It's got everything," Johnson said. "It's there for people to learn from."