A Miami man, who spent the last 44 years in prison for the murder of a South Florida ice cream vendor, was set free on May 22 after a judge heard from a state attorney and a public defender that the life sentence, handed down while the man was a juvenile, was unlawful.
The Miami Herald reports 60-year-old Prince Johnson’s release from prison follows landmark decisions from both the U.S. and Florida supreme courts.
Johnson was convicted for the 1970 murder of Marta Roman, 47, who was shot while tending her husband’s ice cream truck. Johnson was 16 years old at the time.
State Attorney’s Office representative Ed Griffith told the Miami Herald that Johnson was tried as an adult at the time because he was believed to be principal participant in the robbery that led to the shooting.
But Gale Lewis, the supervisory attorney for the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, explained to WTVJ News there were problems with the conviction.
“The state knew that there was another person involved, they couldn't connect it. Prince was never alleged to be the shooter in this case, he was a kid who possibly got swept into this incident,” she said.
The state’s case relied on fingerprints taken from the truck’s cash box, which matched Johnson’s.
But, as Griffith told the Miami Herald, both the prosecutor’s and the public defender’s office believed someone else actually pulled the trigger.
“I don’t know what happened back then,” Lewis said. “All I know is, we had to make it right.”
“This is what being a public defender is all about,” she added. “This means redemption. This means second chances.”
Johnson’s shot at a second chance came as the result of a tangle of court decisions and Florida laws.
In 2012, according to the Miami Herald, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life sentences without the possibility for parole for juveniles convicted of murder.
That ruling left open the possibility of a life sentence, but required judges to hear the circumstances of a defendant’s upbringing.
The problem in Florida though was the state had abolished parole. But legislators there passed a law in 2014 allowing judges to “review” a murderer’s sentence after 25 years. The law only applied to sentences handed down after the law went into effect.
In March, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that application of the law should be broadened to cover older cases as well.
Lewis said she took up Johnson’s case after he filed a petition last year. She and the prosecutor’s office agreed his sentence was unlawful given the new guidelines.
The judge on May 22 resentenced Johnson to 50 years in prison and he was released later that day based on credit for time served.
His family applauded the judge’s decision.
“It took a long time coming since 1971,” Johnson’s sister, Olive Coley, said. “My brother went to jail when he was 16 years old. And one of these days, we’re gonna go through that court and prove and exonerate his name completely.”
Photo Credit: Miami-Dade Police via Daily Mail