I get a lot of letters from prisoners who claim they were wrongly convicted. But it’s hard for a journalist to undo what a jury or judge has already done. And you have to be careful. You don’t want to be used by someone who doesn’t deserve a second chance.
So why did Justly Johnson’s case get my attention?
It was the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and when I saw that they were involved, I wondered; why would lawyers from Wisconsin stick their necks out to defend a guy from Michigan convicted of murder? After all, there was no DNA evidence that would give these lawyers a slam-dunk case.
Once I started looking into it, I discovered this case had many unanswered questions and then I couldn’t let go.
I found myself working nights and weekends, on my own time, waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the case, and driving to state prisons for face-to-face meetings. This is one of the most intense and compelling investigations of my career.
I can’t tell you whether Justly Johnson is guilty. What I can tell you after months of working this case is that it has a lot of issues: a stunning lack of evidence, sloppy police work, loose ends that were never investigated.
The two witnesses who sealed Justly Johnson’s fate claim they fingered him because the police threatened them. It’s been well documented that high-pressure tactics were being used in the Detroit homicide unit at the time.
And so I decided to dig as deeply as I could, lay out the story and let you decide: Is Justly Johnson responsible for murdering a young mom with her three kids in the back seat of her minivan?
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During his 22 years as a Detroit Cop, Mike Carlisle had a reputation as a no- nonsense guy who got the job done. During his last 10 years, he tackled some of Detroit's most difficult murder cases.
Will Kindred says he was just walking out of his brother-in-law’s house when he heard a loud noise like a car door slamming and saw his wife’s van speeding down the street.
Will Kindred was well known to Roseville Police for taking his rage out on his wife and children. Public records show police were called to Kindred's home 17 times in four years for domestic issues. Some of the incidents were disturbingly violent.
In the hours and days following the Kindred murder, Detroit Police searched five homes and an apartment looking for evidence that would connect Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott to the killing. Police records show they found nothing.
Justly Johnson, convicted in the murder of Lisa Kindred, says there is a man who can vouch for his innocence but he doesn’t know his last name, or where to find him.
Judge Prentis Edwards found Justly Johnson guilty after a two-day trial. There was no jury. He acknowledged there were no eyewitnesses and there was only circumstantial evidence.
Shortly after the murder of Lisa Kindred, Detroit Police had two witnesses who fingered Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott as the killers. But their stories were not consistent. They even disagreed on which of the two men actually pulled the trigger.
According to the affidavits, Lisa Kindred told Jodi Gonterman that if anything ever happened to her she should suspect her husband Will Kindred. According to the affidavits, from people who talked to Kindred's sister, Lisa also told her sister that if anything happened to her, she wanted Gonterman to have custody of her kids.
For 12 years, Justly Johnson has been fighting to get his story out. Now you can hear, in Johnson’s own words, why he thinks he deserves a shot at freedom. After a couple months of studying this murder case, I decided it was time for a face-to-face meeting with Justly Johnson.
The only significant piece of physical evidence left behind by the killer of Lisa Kindred is the casing from the small caliber bullet that pierced her heart.
Justly Johnson was 24 years old when he was arrested for the murder of Lisa Kindred and unless he is successful on appeal, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
With all of the questions surrounding the murder of Lisa Kindred, one thing is undisputed; she and her husband had a very stormy on-again, off-again relationship.
When Justly Johnson was convicted in 2000, he immediately started working to get a new trial. Johnson contacted Innocence Projects in every state. At that time, Michigan had only one Innocence Project at Cooley Law School in Lansing and they only accepted cases with DNA evidence.
Lawyers for the Michigan Innocence Clinic are ramping up efforts to free a man doing life in prison for a murder he says he didn't commit.