If there’s any justice in the world, the woman known as “the Abduction of the Professor” will come out of the courtroom a free woman, her sentence long since served. Alice Marie Johnson, the woman who spent 22 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense, was freed this week, and the president did most of the heavy lifting.
There were procedural challenges: Johnson had already served her time, and the primary vehicle for her release from federal prison, a conditional parole, is only available to U.S. citizens. This fact, along with the fact that a petition she has recently launched to be pardoned isn’t supported by anyone from the White House (including Mr. Trump), cast doubt on the conviction. But more importantly, it demonstrates the long and tortured history of racial injustice at the heart of the process by which Alice Marie Johnson was convicted.
In 1985, Johnson was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for her role in a drug conspiracy. The details of Johnson’s crime remain murky: she was convicted of being a member of the Jamaat-Fuqra movement, a Jamaican gang, along with three others. Johnson didn’t know who would carry out the drug deal, but prosecutors alleged that she drove a car to the park where the co-conspirators attempted to buy drugs. It’s a thin pretext for a federal conviction — why wouldn’t Johnson be investigated for a gun? — but even so, Ms. Johnson was arrested and charged under federal drug laws and, as such, imprisoned.
Johnson did cooperate with the Bureau of Prisons during her trial and pleaded guilty, and she has maintained that she was coerced into pleading. The case was handled by a very experienced prosecutor from the Northern District of Georgia, which is no stranger to trumped-up charges and wrongfully convicted defendants. Prosecutors have consistently extracted leniency from judges in these types of cases in the past, all the while allowing defense attorneys to run the trial more or less on their own. That’s how Johnson was convicted: She signed a plea deal that would enable her to receive a light sentence (half the length of her original sentence). It was used as a bargaining chip, she believed.
The facts of the case were contradicted by a series of witnesses with long histories of drug-related arrests, convictions and jailing, and once the sentencing judge read her the transcript, the result was another guilty verdict. But now Johnson has made her case to the U.S. Department of Justice and requested the pardon she believes should have been given to her at the time of her trial. On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he would give Johnson’s request a thorough review, which was a first step.
There’s some irony here. Mr. Trump’s cravings for retribution have made a mockery of his campaign pledge to be a president for the “the forgotten men and women.” He has directed supporters to investigate critics — including members of his own cabinet — like Loretta Lynch, and he’s routinely characterized black people with racist terms like “hateful” and “racist.” In May, Mr. Trump used a deportation relief program to target undocumented immigrants who have ties to the United States, despite advocates’ clear understanding that he was merely phasing out the program. As a candidate, Mr. Trump also labeled black people “the ones who kill everybody,” and called for the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants who have ties to the United States. Mr. Trump has also taken steps to limit money for the Violence Against Women Act, which would have helped women and girls who’ve experienced violence at the hands of their intimate partners.
So it’s hard to justify a free woman who spent 23 years in prison, or a convicted murderer who was granted clemency more than two months ago (“I’m going to be home soon,” he had previously tweeted, months before he would grant clemency) for alleged drug crimes.
Maybe there’s hope that’s the case. But evidence also exists that exonerating women and men who have been wrongly convicted for decades is a difficult process, as chronicled by a former prosecutor on NPR. Johnson and the people who helped her appeal the case are not the exception, but the rule.