'JUstice Demands' New Trial For Death Row Inmate, Alabama District Attorney Says

An Alabama district attorney on Monday asked a judge to order a new trial for a death row inmate, saying that a review found that the 1998 conviction was flawed and “cannot be justified or allowed to stand.”

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr filed a brief expressing his support for Toforest Johnson’s bid to receive a new trial. Carr has supported a new trial since 2020, but the latest filing detailed the findings of a post-conviction review of the case.

“A thorough review and investigation of the entire case leaves no confidence in the integrity of Johnson’s conviction. The interest of justice demands that Johnson be granted a new trial,” Carr wrote in the brief.

Johnson has been on Alabama’s death row since 1998 after he was convicted in the 1995 killing of Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff William Hardy, who was shot twice in the head while working off-duty security at a hotel. However, Carr, who was elected as the county's district attorney in 2018, wrote that the “evidence in this case has unraveled over 20 years.”

Carr said that credible alibi witnesses place Johnson elsewhere at the time of the crime. He said there are multiple reasons to doubt the key prosecution witness, a woman who “claimed she overheard Johnson confess to the murder on a three-way phone call on which she was eavesdropping.”

Carr said that the “physical evidence contradicts” her account. He said she was paid $5,000 for her testimony and had been a witness in multiple cases.

“The lead prosecutor now has such grave concerns about (her) account that he supports a new trial for Johnson,” Carr wrote of the prosecutor who led the case in the 1990s.

The filing was the latest development in the long-running legal effort to win a new trial in the case that has garnered national attention and is the subject of a podcast. Former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, former Chief Justice Drayton Nabers, and several former judges and prosecutors submitted briefs to the circuit court or wrote editorials supporting a new trial for Johnson.

The current petition was filed in 2020 but was paused as other appeals played out in different courts.

The Alabama attorney general’s office has not responded to the latest filing. The office in 2022 asked a judge to dismiss Johnson’s petition: “Mr. Carr’s opinion that Johnson should receive a new trial is just that, his opinion,” lawyers for the attorney general’s office wrote in 2022.

Johnson’s daughter, Shanaye Poole, said she is thankful for Carr’s support for her father to receive a new trial.

“Our hope is that the courts will agree with him. Our hope is for our family to finally be reunited,” Poole said. She said her father has always maintained his innocence. “We’ve had to live in a nightmare for so long,” she said.

The Alabama Supreme Court in 2022 upheld a lower court’s decision denying a separate request for a new trial. Johnson’s lawyers had argued the state failed to disclose that the key prosecution witness was paid a reward. The Court of Criminal Appeals in May ruled that Johnson’s attorneys had not established that the witness knew about the reward or was motivated by it.