In Bondage to the Law

In Bondage to the Law

By The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX

On a summer night in 1995, a sheriff’s deputy was shot and killed in a hotel parking lot in Birmingham, Alabama. When investigators arrived at the scene, they found no eyewitnesses and almost no evidence pointing to the shooter. 

Detectives ultimately zeroed in on a man named Toforest Johnson, who on that same night was with friends at a nightclub miles away. Johnson was tried twice for the murder and eventually convicted on the testimony of an “earwitness” – a woman who claimed to have overheard Johnson confessing to the crime. He was sentenced to death and has spent more than 25 years on Alabama’s death row.

In 2019, investigative journalist Beth Shelburne began covering the case, finding details that cast major doubts about Johnson’s guilt. This week, in partnership with Lava for Good and the Earwitness podcast, hosted by Shelburne, we tell the story of Johnson’s case. First, Shelburne digs into the night of the murder and speaks to the lead investigator on the case. 

Then, in conversation with host Al Letson, Shelburne walks through how Johnson was convicted, despite a lack of evidence and a solid alibi. She also shares the latest turn in Johnson’s case: Questions about the credibility of the earwitness have surfaced in the last few years, leading many Alabama politicians and attorneys to call for a new trial.  

Alabama's prison system doesn't allow people on death row to talk to journalists, so Shelburne visits the people closest to Johnson: his kids. They share memories and their hopes for their father’s case. She also has a conversation with an unlikely supporter of a new trial: one of the people who had a hand in sending Johnson to death row. 

Click here to hear the full Earwitness podcast.

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