A Laramie couple has begun a fundraising campaign on behalf of a man who spent a quarter-century in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Andrew Johnson of Cheyenne was sentenced to life in prison in 1989 after being convicted of rape. The prosecution alleged he broke into the home of an acquaintance and assaulted her.
In 2008, the Wyoming Legislature passed a law allowing prisoners to petition for DNA testing.
Johnson applied for the testing, and the rape kit performed on his accuser was found to contain the DNA of her fiancée at the time, but not his.
After being granted a new trial in 2013, prosecutors dropped the charges against him. Later that year, a judge signed an order proclaiming his innocence.
“He was the first person in Wyoming who has been exonerated by DNA evidence,” said Chris Merrill, who started a page on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe on Johnson’s behalf, together with his wife, Rebecca.
Wyoming is one of 18 states that does not require that restitution be paid to people who have been wrongfully convicted.
“Here’s a guy who was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit for almost 24 years, and he’s exonerated and proven innocent, and he is let out of prison but with no compensation whatsoever for all that was taken away from him,” Merrill said. “It really struck us as an enormous injustice.”
The Merrills learned about Johnson’s story from a newspaper article four years ago, and they reached out to him through his attorney at the time. They helped Johnson financially and have kept in touch since then.
On Nov. 29, they started a fundraising page at www.gofundme.com/westandwithandrew with a goal of raising $100,000. Merrill said the idea for the fundraiser came as the Christmas season approached.
“It’s a tough time of year for somebody when you don’t have anything and you’re still struggling just to make ends meet,” he said.
Many people don’t know Johnson’s story, Merrill said. Nor do they realize the state doesn’t assist people who are wrongfully convicted.
“I think everyone would agree that our criminal justice system is imperfect, and when it makes a mistake of this magnitude, I think we would all expect that our government would do something to make it right,” he said.
Merrill argued that citizens have a responsibility to step up when injustice occurs in the government or criminal justice system because those systems belong to the people.
“We all share a bit of the responsibility just by virtue of being citizens,” he said.
Attempts to change the laws regarding restitution for wrongful imprisonment as recently as 2014 have died in the Legislature, but Merrill said the fundraising page has motivated some people to contact their legislators.
In April, Johnson sued the city of Cheyenne, alleging that officers failed to properly investigate the case and withheld evidence. In July, a federal judge dismissed the suit on procedural grounds, saying Johnson had already made such claims in previous legal actions.
Johnson appealed the ruling earlier this month in the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver. His lawyer, Robert Schuster, argued that previous claims made by Johnson were filed without the help of a lawyer and before he was exonerated.
“Andrew Johnson’s case is the single greatest miscarriage of justice in Wyoming’s judicial history. We will ask the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to finally reverse and correct this tragedy,” Schuster said in a written statement.
Merrill said Johnson is a humble man who remains optimistic.
“I think it’s meant a lot to him to see the local community step up and support him in this way,” he said.
As of Monday, the fundraising page had received almost $17,000 in donations from more than 200 people.