Shreveport Times

Leesville Man Freed After Wrongful Conviction
DNA evidence has cleared Rickey Johnson in 1982 rape in Many, LA
January 12, 2008
by Vickie Welborn

MANY — He's been behind bars for the past 25 years for a crime he did not commit.

But Rickey Johnson, 52, will have to wait for a little less than 48 hours before he can walk freely in the community again.

DNA testing completed Dec. 21 determined that the Leesville man could not have raped a Many woman on July 12, 1982. The man who did was convicted in May 1984 of committing an aggravated rape April 30, 1983, at the same apartment complex in Many.

The men knew each other from their early days. However, Johnson only learned Friday night over a hot meal of seafood that he spent more than two decades at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola because of a rape committed by John McNeal, also known as "Sneaky Pete."

Surprise and disbelief were his first reactions. But no harsh words come from Johnson in a one-on-one interview with The Times in the Sabine Detention Center.

In fact, Johnson said he never gave much thought to why someone wrongly accused him of rape. He couldn't, he said.

Rickey Johnson eats a platter of seafood Friday night hours after his release from a state prison. DNA evidence has cleared Johnson of a 1982 rape conviction. The seafood was the first he's eaten in more than 20 years. (Photo by Vickie Welborn)

"If I had thought about it, I would have had a lot of hatred in my heart toward the girl.  I just didn't think about it," Johnson said. "I just had to focus all of my energy on getting out instead of crying about being innocent.  I would drown in my tears."

Wrongly convicted

Johnson was only 26 when a Many woman identified him as her rapist. Johnson was a frequent visitor in Sabine Parish, with relatives living in Many and his father's family hailing from Florien.

But he had not been in Many for months before that one day in the summer of 1982 that a Leesville police officer stopped him and told him he needed to check on a warrant for his arrest in Many.

Johnson didn't immediately, but later the same officer stopped him again. Johnson was so confident he was the victim of mistaken identity that he told his brother to take him to Many so that he'd have a ride.

"But it didn't happen that way," Johnson said.

He was arrested for aggravated rape and was incarcerated until his January 1983 trial.

Johnson filed appeals. All denied.

About seven years ago, acting upon the advice of a close friend and fellow inmate, Calvin Willis, of Shreveport, Johnson contacted the Innocence Project, which has drawn national attention for taking on the cases of inmates who were wrongly convicted of crimes.

Johnson would receive a letter every year telling him that his case would be reviewed. A few years ago, Johnson had to watch Willis walk out of Angola a free man. He, too, had been wrongly convicted of rape.

Last year, Johnson received a letter from the Innocence Project telling him he was a client.

Last week, Johnson received the word. "DNA has cleared you."

With a smile that consumed his face, Johnson, a somewhat soft-spoken man, said, "I knew this would happen. I knew I wasn't their guy."

Johnson was convicted solely on the victim's identification. She was unable to distinguish any marks, including a gold front tooth, despite her testimony of looking at her attacker's face during the entire four hours he was in her bedroom, his attorney said in court papers.

DeSoto-Sabine District Don Burkett was not the district attorney who prosecuted Johnson; James Lynn Davis held the position then.

Once Burkett learned Johnson had been cleared, he asked that the blood typing evidence still on file with the Sabine clerk of court's office be submitted to the Northwest Louisiana Criminalist Laboratory in Shreveport. DNA testing was not available in 1982.

"Thursday, it was determined to a certainty that the rape Johnson was convicted of was actually the DNA from a person committing a rape 10 months later. He was convicted, too," Burkett said.

Good news

Friday morning, Johnson was in the Angola hobby shop. He got word to call his attorney, Vanessa Potkin, of the Innocence Project.

"She told me I was going home. I hadn't cried in a long time but I couldn't hold it back," he said.

Thinking he'd have to stay until Monday, Johnson went back to work. About 30 minutes later, Warden Burl Cain, flanked by a camera crew that was on site filming a documentary, approached and said, "Rickey, are you ready to go home?"

The word spread like lightning.

"I told him he had spent his last night in Angola," said Cain in an interview Friday with The Times. "All of the inmates rejoiced. They were so happy. They hugged and cried. It was such a moral booster for this prison."

Johnson's one request before he left was to see his brother, who also is at Angola. Their reunion was tear-filled, but Johnson said his brother was glad that he was going home.

Johnson also expressed heart-felt appreciation to Burkett. "I said to myself, that's a good man."

Freedom comes soon

Burkett said Johnson could not be released until all formalities have been taken care of. A district judge must sign a release order.

Two state prison guards drove Johnson to the Sabine Detention Center on Friday, arriving around 6 p.m. With his belongings stuffed into a satchel, Johnson was trying to adjust to the whirlwind of change. Burkett offered to buy Johnson's supper, and a seafood platter from Pearl's Place soon was before him.

During his 25 years of incarceration, Johnson has missed watching his four children grow. One was born just after he went to jail. He's kept in touch as best he could.

One son, a LSU engineering graduate, just moved to Baton Rouge. "I'm the only one he has now since his mother has passed."

And, of course, there are the grandchildren that he's never met.

Johnson will sleep in a single bunk cell this weekend. He'll go home Monday with a sister until he gets his feet back on the ground.

After that: "I'll just take one day at a time. That's the way I learned it in prison; one day at a time. Wherever the Lord leads me, that's where I'll be."

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