ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WXYZ) — It took the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit and the help of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, but Ronnell Johnson is finally free after spending the last 14 years fighting for his freedom.
“I’m not bitter, I'm just back,” Johnson said on Friday.
The last time Johnson walked the streets as a free man was in 2007. After being released from prison on Wednesday, he’s back with his family, making up for lost time.
“I'm back. It's like I never left," Johnson said. "It's like deja vu.”
Johnson was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison for armed robbery in Washtenaw County — a crime he’s long maintained he didn’t commit. He spent 14 years fighting it alone, filing evidence to prove his case.
“I just did not know my power," Johnson said. "It took me that long because I did not know my own power.”
The evidence in question stemmed from surveillance video in which Johnson’s father positively identified his son. But a photo expert recently said the person in the video was 4 inches shorter than Johnson.
It was also recently discovered that Johnson's defense was never told about a plea deal his father was given in a separate case in order to identify his son.
“That sort of plea deal is relevant to the biases and motives that a witness may have and therefore, it's important it be disclosed to the defense, so they can cross examine based on that," said Imran Syed, co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. "That clearly didn't happen here.”
Shortly after the evidence emerged Johnson started working with Syed and the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which had secured the release of 30 wrongfully convicted people. Johnson became the 31st.
“This is a long overdue victory of course for Mr. Johnson, himself, who was incarcerated 14 years," Syed said. "I give him a lot of credit for continuing the fight on his own for long stretches there where he didn't have an attorney.”
“This is precisely why we started our Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit to look back at these old cases and to remedy past injustices,” Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit said.
Savit and his office also helped secure Johnson’s release when they discovered the error. They’ve since trained staff to make sure it doesn't happen again.
“We can't lose sight of the fact that a man served 14 years in prison based on a trial that was constitutionally deficient,” Savit said. "We are committed to not just remedying past errors but making sure that errors like this never happen again.”
When Johnson was finally released on Wednesday, he had a crowd of supporters including his family waiting for him.
“To see my son walking in my arms, I was there and it was just a joyful experience," Johnson's mother Arnita Baskin said. "I'm just overwhelmed.”
As Johnson held his mother in his arms, he expressed thanks for his family that stood by his side, along with the new family that stood there too.
“Those people are my family," Johnson said of the Innocence Clinic. "They saved my life. Without them, I'm still in the system.”
The Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit in Washtenaw County is relatively new, and Johnson is the first person to be released after one of their reviews.