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Jonesboro man's book selling

By Ed Brock

Calvin Johnson Jr. barely has time to tighten his tie these days before heading out to a day of promoting his book "Exit to Freedom."

Things have certainly changed for the Jonesboro man who was languishing in prison four or five years ago, facing years more of incarceration for a crime he didn't commit.

"It's been busy. Trying to juggle between family, work and promoting a book, it's a difficult task," Johnson said. "This book is so powerful that people are calling me and crying on the phone from the impact the book had on them."

Johnson, 45, 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 and the results proved that someone else had committed the crime.

The book recounts what it's like to be falsely accused and spend 16 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

According to the Associated Press, "After the judge told Johnson he was free, Johnson embraced his lawyers, stood and hugged his father and his sisters, and smiled when (Project Freedom co-founder Peter) Neufeld handed him the pen used to sign the papers for his freedom. "The judge wanted you to have the pen," Neufeld said.

On the courthouse steps, Johnson admitted he had been angry for years after he was sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. But he abandoned his anger after he "dedicated my life to God." "I don't see any reason to harbor bitterness," said Johnson. "If you hold that in your heart, it will destroy you."

The first 5,000 hardback copies of "Exit to Freedom," published by the University of Georgia Press, were released on Sept. 15.

"After 15 days they had to put in a rush order because they only had 400 left," Johnson said.

A second printing of 3,000 copies is being done and is expected to continue to sell well, said UGA Press spokesman John McLeod.

Johnson and his co-author, Clayton College & State University Associate Professor of Biology Greg Hampikian, have been doing book signings and radio interviews and Johnson is scheduled to be interviewed by People Television. Hampikian recently returned from a promotional trip to his alma mater, the University of Connecticut.

The turnout for that and other book signings has been impressive, Hampikian said.

"At UGA we were signing books for half an hour," Hampikian said.

Hampikian sought out a meeting with Johnson after reading his story in the newspaper. After inviting Johnson to speak at the college Hampikian asked if he could help write a book about Johnson's story.

"I was really looking to tell a bigger story than the essays and poetry and plays I'd written," Hampikian said.

Others had approached him to do the book, Johnson said, but he was afraid they might sensationalize the story.

"I wanted the truth to be told," Johnson said.

While working on the book the two men would meet and Johnson would talk about his story while Hampikian recorded him. Later Hampikian entered the basic story into a computer and afterward they went back and arranged it into a readable form.

Sometimes they even had to include sensitive parts of the story that were difficult for Johnson to go public with.

"I would say that's off the record and then Greg would come back later and say we really need to put that in," Johnson said.

And they both prayed a lot during the writing of the book. It was that faith that kept Johnson going during his years in prison, and it's the same faith that gives him such a positive perspective on what happened and prevents him from being bitter.

"It's hard for me to describe how upbeat Calvin is," Hampikian said. "He did what very few other people can do. He forgave and moved on."

Johnson's story really is a miracle, said Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller, the same man who prosecuted Johnson in 1983.

"There was no legal reason for us to keep the DNA material (that would eventually be used to free Johnson)," Keller said.

When the judge who heard the case left there was also a change in court reporters and while shifting through old evidence the judge's office called Keller and asked if he wanted to keep the evidence from Johnson's trial. Keller said yes.

Keller said he probably wouldn't read the book.

"I know the story first hand," Keller said. "I was part of the trial and part of the DNA efforts that led to his freedom."

Keller and Johnson were reunited several months ago when they testified at a Georgia Senate committee hearing in support of a recently passed law that makes it easier for people convicted of serious crimes to petition for a new trial based on new DNA evidence.

This is a book for everybody, Johnson said, and it puts the readers in Johnson's shoes. The two authors will hold another book signing on Oct. 25 in the Harry S. Downs Center for Continuing Education on the Clayton College campus in conjunction with the school's alumni association's annual Pancake Breakfast starting at 8:30 a.m.