A federal judge has thrown out a civil lawsuit brought by a Baltimore man who was exonerated in 2018 after serving 30 years for a murder he says he did not commit, with the judge finding he fabricated evidence and influenced a witness.

In a 152-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander also dismissed claims of misconduct against Baltimore homicide detectives in the case and questioned city prosecutors’ reasoning for supporting the exoneration of Jerome Johnson in 2018.

“To the credit of plaintiff’s able counsel, plaintiff has adeptly crafted what appears to be a series of serious transgressions by the Officer Defendants who investigated the murder of Aaron Taylor,” Hollander wrote in an opinion issued two weeks ago and unsealed Monday. “But, careful scrutiny indicates that, in actuality, there is a lot of smoke, but no fire.”

Two fabricated affidavits and a recorded jail call with a witness were unearthed by lawyers for the city, the Chicago-based firm Nathan & Kamionski.

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It’s the fourth recent federal wrongful conviction lawsuit in which the city’s attorneys have alleged that freed men had fabricated evidence. Two lawsuits have been thrown out and two others settled, including one of them for $8 million. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have accused the city’s hired lawyers — who are Chicago-based and specialize in fighting wrongful conviction lawsuits — of using “win-at-all-costs” tactics and overblowing their findings.

It also comes as some have raised questions about the office’s process used to clear “Serial” podcast subject Adnan Syed. While celebrated by Syed’s supporters who have long maintained his innocence, the Maryland attorney general’s office said there was no basis to vacate the conviction.

While Johnson’s lawsuit was thrown out, he previously received $2.3 million in compensation from the state in 2019 for being wrongfully convicted.

Johnson’s lawyers say they are appealing the decision: “Jerome Johnson is innocent.”

“Like over 3,200 other people, Mr. Johnson was wrongly convicted for a crime he did not commit. In 2018, the Baltimore prosecutor’s office, a Baltimore judge, and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project recognized Mr. Johnson’s innocence. That has not changed,” lawyers from Brown, Goldstein and Levy said in a statement. “Contested allegations about false affidavits and improper witness influencing do not erase his innocence. They have nothing to do with the misconduct by Baltimore police that caused his 29-year wrongful conviction.”

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The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office noted that Hollander’s opinion had no bearing on the status of their conviction review, which the office said it stands behind. “The totality of all of the evidence our CIU uncovered led us to the correct result, which was exoneration,” said spokesperson Emily Witty.

Johnson was one of three men convicted in 1989 of taking part in the killing one year earlier of Aaron Taylor, a 22-year-old gunned down outside the Night Owl Bar in Northwest Baltimore. The case relied on an eyewitness; there was no physical evidence. One of the co-defendants insisted that Johnson was not involved.

“I’m an innocent man,” Johnson said at his sentencing hearing.

Johnson was freed after a review by the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which filed a petition for actual innocence. The unit has exonerated 11 men and vacated the conviction of another.

Johnson’s efforts had been ongoing for years. In 1997, he obtained an affidavit said to be from a man named Paul Burton, who claimed to be present at the scene and absolved Johnson of involvement.

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The city’s lawyers learned that Burton was incarcerated at the time of Taylor’s killing, meaning he could not have seen anything that night. And, they found, the date of the affidavit was when Burton was in restrictive confinement, meaning he could not have been approached about signing such a document.

Johnson’s civil attorneys said records show that Johnson’s former attorney procured the affidavit, not Johnson, and that he did not know it was false.

“The affidavit is a forgery,” Hollander wrote Friday. “And, plaintiff’s claim that he did not know of the falsity of it rings hollow.”

Johnson had also obtained an affidavit in 2000 from co-defendant Alvin Hill, who also said Burton, the man who was incarcerated at the time, was present at the shooting scene and handed a gun to Hill.

While Burton’s affidavit was not cited in Johnson’s successful petition for exoneration, the Hill affidavit was. Johnson’s attorneys, conceding that the Hill affidavit contained false information, said it was only a number of factors that had been considered by prosecutors in their decision to free Johnson.

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“The record reflects substantial evidence of Mr. Johnson’s actual innocence,” his attorneys said in a February court filling.

But Hollander questioned some of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s findings as well.

Only one witness had implicated Johnson as being present: the victim’s cousin, a girl who was 15 years old at the time. Then-Assistant Baltimore State’s Attorney Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said in court in 2018 that the girl did not mention Johnson in her initial statement on the night of the murder.

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.

“Had the defense known about this evidence, counsel would have impeached [the witness] to the point where her credibility would be nil,” the joint petition read.

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But Hollander found in her review of the case that the girl had only had a surface conversation with a patrol officer on the night of the murder, with the police saying she was too shaken up at the time to be fully debriefed. The girl had consistently implicated Johnson in interviews with detectives, Hollander said.

The girl gave conflicting statements about whether Hill’s gun jammed and then was given a weapon by Johnson, or whether Johnson handed him a weapon that jammed. But Hollander said that was “not material” and did not exculpate Johnson because both still cited his involvement.

Hollander noted that the witness was re-interviewed in 2018 by prosecutors and has been “unequivocal in her assertion that Johnson was involved in the murder of her cousin.”

Hollander said several other conclusions made by the CIU were contradicted by their evidence.

The city lawyers also uncovered a recorded jail call made by Johnson after his exoneration, but during litigation in which he told someone not to bring up information that could hurt his case.

“My case, the reason I’m out of prison, and the reason I got a $60 million lawsuit against the police, is because we saying they withheld that statement,” Johnson was recorded saying in 2020. “Now, if you saying they said something to you about it when you got lock up … I’m telling you, don’t say nothing about that, yo, in this case right now.”

The plaintiffs also sought to establish that Baltimore Police failed to train officers on their obligations to turn over exculpatory evidence, putting forward a number of current and former officers to describe their training. Hollander rejected those arguments as well, saying other officers said they were indeed trained in such matters.

“Plaintiff has not provided evidence from which a jury could find that BPD lacked a policy concerning disclosure of exculpatory evidence or failed to train as a result of deliberate indifference,” she wrote.

The city applauded the ruling Monday, saying their outside counsel had been “zealous.”

“While cases like this are difficult, it is important to remember that the decision of the State’s Attorney – or any prosecutor for that matter – to vacate a conviction does not equate to civil liability on the part of BPD or the City,” a city spokesperson said in a statement. “That is why parties have the right to bring their claim before an impartial tribunal, and the City is entitled to defend itself against the same.”

justin.fenton@thebaltimorebanner.com

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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