A new bill to be introduced in the Wyoming state legislature may help people like Andrew Johnson, who was exonerated after serving nearly 24 years in prison on rape charges. While Johnson is happy for his hard-won freedom, lack of state support is making it nearly impossible for him to get back on his feet.
"When I left out of society, I was married, I was raising a child, I had a picket fence, a car, everything," Johnson told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. "I worked for that. Now the state don't want to give any of that back to me."
Johnson was charged with raping an acquaintance in 1989. Only in 2008 did DNA evidence prove that that the person who raped the woman was her fiancé, and not Johnson. That was the first time a person had been issued a writ of innocence based on such evidence in Wyoming. The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center figured largely in Johnson’s exoneration.
But besides dealing with the stigma of having gone to jail for rape— someone wrote “rapist” on his car, while someone else threw eggs at Johnson’s ex-wife’s house— Johnson is dealing with life in a world that is completely different from the one he left, lacking the skills he needs to get a good job like the one he used to have.
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The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center set up a fund for people could donate to to aid in Johnson’s case. Someone gave a car, which was a big help to Johnson, but now the donations have slowed to a trickle.
While Johnson suffers from a number of health conditions, he was denied both Social Security and disability benefits. His situation is quickly becoming desperate.
“I’m just surviving a day at a time. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have no type of income that’s not putting a burden on other people,” said Johnson, who lives with his sister.
“Andrew is lucky that he has a family to provide him with place to stay,” said Innocence Center attorney Elizabeth Fasse. “We’ve had exonerees become homeless and destitute.”
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Things may change, however, in Wyoming’s upcoming legislative session, when a bill to provide $75 a day of compensation to people who have been found innocent of crimes after serving jail time will make it to the floor. Though it wouldn’t provide retroactive payments, if the bill is passed with a two-thirds majority, Johnson could get some of the help he needs.
“That’s the worst nightmare of any prosecutor, judge and jury to put an innocent man in prison,” said state Rep. Keith Gingery, who sponsered the bill. “There needs to be a way to correct that mistake.”
“I get up in the morning, I walk outside, I breath air … it’s not a bad little neighborhood,” Johnson said of his current life. “I think about life. I look up, watch the clouds, then look back down and I’m in the same situation.”