Prison Radio
Mumia Abu-Jamal

In the street, he was known as ‘Cat’ – a young man living in the hustling life.

That’s all he knew.

But Dec. 15, 1995 changed his life.

His life became one no longer in his control, for several months thereafter he and another man were charged with killing Tarajai Williams, in an alleyway next door to a bar in Harrisburg’s Hill district.

Although he wasn’t charged with actually killing Williams, police claimed he was the lookout while another man shot him.

Except to this day, not a single witness has ever said they saw him do so. In fact, just hours after Williams’ body was found, one eyewitness named three other men as the killers – men who, although identified, were never charged.

They had who they wanted: Lorenzo Johnson – aka ‘Cat’, and like a pit bull on a pork chop, they wouldn’t let go.

Uneducated, street-smart but not boo-smart, in fact, illiterate, Johnson was in over his head. He tried to convince his lawyer that he didn’t do it, wasn’t there, and even wasn’t in the state when it happened. But the lawyer went by police reports, didn’t fight for him, and sure enough, he and another man (Corey Walker) were soon convicted of murder and conspiracy.

Alibi witnesses, threatened by police, disappeared.

Years went by, and Cat fought a lonely and desperate battle. He studied for his GED, passed it, and then studied the law.

Day by day, month by month, year by year, he fought for his freedom and exoneration.

On Sept. 28, 1998, he caught a brief glimpse of hope when a PA Superior Court judge wrote a brief but powerful opinion in his appeal. Judge Schiller (later to become a federal judge) wrote, of Johnson:

I believe that there is no direct evidence, nor can any be inferred, linking [Lorenzo] Johnson to the death of Tarajai Williams, nor any agreement which resulted in Williams’ death. {Com. v. Johnson, No. 847 Harrisburg 1997 PA Superior Court Schiller,J. dissenting op: (9/28/1980}.

One would think that would be the end of it, for hadn’t a powerful State appeals court judge ruled that there was no evidence against him? Yes, but a dissenting opinion has no force in law. Two judges voted against him – one voted for him.

It would be 13 year later, in 2011, before judges would vote for him again. This time, the other way: two for him; one against. On Oct. 4, 2011, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled much like Schiller had done over a decade before, declaring an “insufficiency of evidence” – the legal equivalent of an acquittal.

Three months later Cat would walk out of prison, a free man.

But the end is not written, for despite having filed a late cert. petition, months later, in an unusual unsigned per curlam opinion (also with no oral arguments nor briefs), the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals – and reinstated this evidence-free conviction.

After 6 months of freedom, Cat did something rare for any man in his situation.

He left his wife and children, and his job – and turned himself in.

Here he sits, a year later, a cat in a cage, denied the most fundamental facets of justice.

In Cat’s case, evidence was irrelevant.