BALTIMORE — For 30 years, Jerome Johnson maintained he was innocent of the 1988 killing of a Baltimore man inside the Nite Owl bar.
Last week, a judge agreed.
Johnson, convicted of murder in the death of Aaron Taylor, was exonerated on July 2 and set free. He had been convicted on inconsistent and faulty witness testimony, his defense attorneys and prosecutors say.
The 50-year-old stepped from the Baltimore Circuit Courthouse downtown, hugged his younger brother and softly thanked his attorneys before a crowd of onlookers.
“Any ill feelings?” he was asked.
“No,” he said.
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do?”
“Get me a home-cooked meal,” he said.
Johnson has spent his entire adult life in prison. He tried several times to get his conviction overturned.
“Today marks the first time in 30 years that the criminal justice system has worked for Jerome,” Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, said when Johnson was released. The nonprofit at George Washington University helped set him free.
Johnson served most recently in the state prison in Hagerstown, Md., where he woke each morning at 5:30 to pray and work out. Once free Monday afternoon, after hugging his brother, he shook hands with his three nephews.
“He looks at it like it was part of his journey,” said his brother, Shawn Morgan. “He’s very spiritual.”
Taylor was killed 30 years ago this month. Witnesses told police that Taylor had been arguing with several men on the street outside the Nite Owl in Baltimore City’s Park Heights neighborhood. Someone drew a gun and tried to shoot Taylor, witnesses said, but he ran inside.
One man followed and killed him.
Four men were charged with murder: Johnson, Reginald Dorsey, Alvin Hill and Thomas Carroll. Jurors acquitted Carroll. They convicted Dorsey, Hill and Johnson.
Several witnesses placed Dorsey and Hill at the killing. Only one implicated Johnson: the lead witness, a 15-year-old girl.
Assistant Baltimore State’s Attorney Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the conviction integrity unit, read an account of the investigation in the courtroom.
Lipscomb said the girl initially told investigators that the shooter pulled a gun from his waistband. Later, Lipscomb said, the girl changed her story: She told police that Johnson handed Hill the gun.
Johnson’s defense attorneys were not told of the girl’s first statement, Lipscomb said.
Johnson repeatedly challenged the case. Over the years, new evidence emerged.
Prosecutors say a witness in 1997 placed Johnson some distance from the scene of the killing. The shooter admitted to the crime in 2000, prosecutors say, and said Johnson wasn’t there.
Johnson’s case was taken up five years ago by Nancy Forster, the former public defender of Maryland. She investigated further and contacted Lipscomb’s unit, which then recruited help from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
The nonprofit, founded in 2000, works to correct and prevent the conviction of innocent people in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Officials say they have helped secure the release and exoneration of 28 innocent men who served a combined 494 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Lipscomb presented the new evidence to Judge Charles J. Peters and asked for a new trial. Then she dropped the charges against Johnson.
Outside the courthouse, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby thanked Taylor’s family for supporting the exoneration.
“My heart breaks for the family of Aaron Taylor,” Mosby said. “I thank them for their wisdom and their grace.
“My heart also breaks for Mr. Jerome Johnson, who must now reconcile that we live in a world that can take 29 prime years away from an innocent man for a crime in which he had no part.”
Mosby apologized publicly to Johnson.
He is the third wrongly convicted man who has been exonerated during her administration. Malcolm Bryant was exonerated of murder in May 2016 by DNA evidence and set free after 17 years in prison. Lamar Johnson was exonerated of murder in September after serving 13 years in prison.
Prosecutors said they interviewed dozens of witnesses and spent nine months investigating the slaying before asking a judge to exonerate Johnson.
Outside the courthouse, Johnson hugged Forster. She kissed him on the cheek.
Then she sent him off with a gift bag. Inside was a book on Nelson Mandela, the South African statesman who spent 27 years in prison, and a blank journal for Johnson to chronicle his life as a free man.