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Political ad causes debate

By Ed Brock

A man who spent years in jail for a crime he didn't commit says he isn't endorsing any candidates for Clayton County district attorney despite the use of his name by at least two of those candidates.

And one candidate is the district attorney who put the man in jail.

A television commercial for Jonesboro attorney Jewell Scott's campaign for the district attorney's office shows the book "Exit to Freedom," the story of Calvin Johnson Jr. of Jonesboro.

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.

Scott's opponent, incumbent District Attorney Bob Keller, was the prosecutor who put Johnson in jail. But Johnson said he's put that all behind him and he has no position on whether Keller should keep his job, though at the time of his conviction he wasn't happy with the way things went.

"But I've made peace and I've moved on," Johnson said.

Then approximately one month ago Johnson began hearing from friends and members of the community that Keller had used his name during a public forum and seemed to be taking credit for his release.

Keller said he in no way intended to give that impression, but instead he had said that it was a miracle that his department had kept the evidence in the case that would later make possible the DNA test that freed Johnson.

"I gave all the credit to God," Keller said.

And Johnson gave credit for his freedom to the Innocence Project, and so he asked Innocence Project attorney William C. Head to write a letter to Keller asking him not to use Johnson's name in the campaign at all and indicating that Johnson had chosen not to become politically involved.

To his knowledge, Johnson said, Keller has complied with that request.

Prior to that, Scott and her husband, Lee Scott, had approached him to be a part of Jewell Scott's campaign, Johnson said, but he refused. He then turned down an invitation to sell copies of his book at a rally for Scott.

"I said if I'm just there my presence will appear as if I'm endorsing you," Johnson said.

Johnson said the Scotts gave him the impression that there was nothing he could do about their use of his story, but that he did not give any permission for them to use his book. He doesn't think it is fair since he had told one candidate not to use his name that another candidate for the office would use his name and the name of the book.

"They went ahead without my permission," Johnson said.

The presence of the book in the television commercial came as a surprise to the book's co-author Greg Hampikian.

"We're both just kind of shocked," Hampikian said.

So Johnson asked Head to send a letter to the Scotts asking them to stop using his name and likeness in connection with the campaign.

Head said he had sent the letter via Jewell Scott's Web site on Saturday, but on Monday Scott said she hadn't received the letter.

Scott said she knows that Johnson is not endorsing her candidacy and she had no intention to imply that in her commercial or on her Web site and billboards where Johnson's case is also mentioned.

"But the book is with the public domain," Scott said. "It's a fact that he went to jail for 17 years for a crime he didn't commit."

That is part of her campaign, Scott said, that she will fully prosecute the guilty but will not engage in "selective prosecution" or prosecute innocent people.

She said that without seeing the letter she could not comment on whether she would continue to use Johnson's name in her campaign material.

Lee Scott said only that they would "certainly respect Calvin Johnson."

Head said that in his letter he gave Scott until noon today to tell him that they would no longer use Johnson's name or Johnson would hold a press conference disclaiming all connection with Scott's campaign.

As for legal action, Head said copyright laws might be stretched to address the situation.

"But it would be tenuous and that's really not the issue," Head said.

The issue, Johnson said, is that he wants nothing to do with any of the campaigns.

The third candidate for district attorney, attorney Michael King, said he might have briefly mentioned Johnson's case during the same forum Keller attended. He said he had no comment on Scott's use of Johnson's story.