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Clemency for Ricky Johnson

by Kevin Alexander Gray

Richard Charles Johnson is scheduled to be executed by the State of South Carolina on May 3, 2002 for a crime, according to a co-defendant, he did not commit. Johnson, convicted of killing S.C. Highway Patrol trooper Bruce K. Smalls in 1985, has exhausted his last appeal and now it is up to Governor Jim Hodges whether he lives or dies.

The killing of Smalls occurred in 1985 on I-95 near Hardeeville when the trooper pulled over a motor home in which Johnson was riding. The motor home was owned by C. Daniel Swanson of Fairfax, Va., who Johnson was traveling with prior to picking up hitchhikers Connie Sue Hess and Curtis Halbert. Swanson’s body was later found in the back of the mobile home, shot in the back of the head. Hess later confessed that Halbert pulled the trigger on Swanson.

In October 1999, just hours before Johnson was previously scheduled for execution, his co-defendant, Connie Sue Hess, confessed to killing Trooper Smalls. Although the execution was stayed at that time, South Carolina still seeks to execute Johnson even though Hess has never retracted her confession and no jury has ever heard this or other evidence relevant to his innocence.

Professor Barry Scheck of the Cardozo Law School Innocence Project, who is also assisting in the clemency proceedings, argued before the South Carolina Supreme Court that Johnson’s trial has all the earmarks of a trial in which the risk of an innocent person being convicted is at its very highest. The evidence presented was slim at best and favorable information was withheld from the jury.

Ricky Johnson was sentenced to death solely based on the testimony of two co-defendants who walked out of jail the day after they testified, and a career jailhouse snitch with a history of testifying falsely against inmates. The only physical evidence available points to his innocence. When his hands were tested for gunpowder within the critical time frame, no gunpowder residue was found. Moreover, prosecutors failed to test Hess and Halbert within the critical time frame.

On June 11, the S.C. Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, denied Johnson’s request for a retrial based on Hess’ statement that she was the killer. Justices said it was unlikely that a jury would deliver a different verdict even with Hess’ confession, because of inconsistencies in her statements to police. But in the previous two trials (the Supreme Court overturned Johnson’s first conviction because of evidence wrongly allowed at the trial) Hess’ testimony helped convict Johnson of slaying Smalls. So, if Hess was credible enough to convict Johnson, why isn’t she credible enough to exonerate him?

Johnson and Swanson had traveled together for a day or so but within hours of picking up Hess and Halbert, people began to die.

Johnson’s blood alcohol level at the time of his arrest was extremely high. So high that he passed out soon after his arrest. So high as to raise question as to his ability to outmaneuver a trained state trooper. According to the state’s own toxicologist, Johnson’s blood alcohol level was approximately 0.23. Furthermore, Johnson’s behavior did not fit with what one would expect of someone leaving the scene of a crime. He never fled the scene, but simply wandered aimlessly down the highway in plain sight. When a marked police car drove past him, according to the officer, he just stared “real funny.” When the arresting officers stopped on the highway to question Johnson, he did not try to flee but just stood there with a “glazed look in his eye.”

Johnson had no history of violence before his conviction and has none since. In fact, his prison record does not contain one single disciplinary incident in the sixteen years he has been on death row.

Margaret Hazel of Beaufort, Smalls’ mother-in-law, said she has long since put the tragedy behind her. Hazel said she has tried to move on. “I never really pushed for execution,” Hazel said. Smalls’ mother, Thelma Blue, has also asked that Johnson’s life be spared and has signed an affidavit stating such.

Because of the extremely high possibility that Johnson may be innocent, Governor Hodges should spare his life. It is not a matter of where the Governor stands on the death penalty. It a matter of having to courage to say there is doubt in this case. The Governor has the power of life and death for Ricky Johnson. Hopefully, he will find the political and moral courage to spare Ricky’s life.

Please send an email to Governor Hodges requesting that he grant clemency for Ricky Johnson at this address: Governor@govoepp.state.sc.us

Kevin Alexander Gray is a longtime civil rights organizer and CounterPunch contributor from Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached at: kagamba@bellsouth.net


Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons, forthcoming from CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at kevinagray57@gmail.com

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