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A Travesty of Justice, the Killing of Ricky Johnson

Governor Jim Hodges of South Carolina turned “thumbs down”and allowed the State of South Carolina to kill an innocent man. In doing so he lied about crucial facts to make himself look good to the public as a tough-on-crime candidate for reelection in November. (Let’s Stop the Killing of An Innocent Man) Hodges denied Richard Charles “Ricky” Johnson’s application for clemency and he was killed by the State of South Carolina on Friday, May 3, 2002. Despite requests to grant clemency from retired S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney, 13 past presidents of the S.C. State Bar, 25 former state and federal prosecutors, many state legislators and civil rights leaders, and an estimated 7,000 concerned citizens, Hodges rejected Johnson’s clemency appeal.

Former Solicitor Capers Barr of Charleston, who successfully prosecuted several death penalty cases in his career, said he believes a jury should have been given the chance to consider the 1999 confession of Connie Sue Hess to being the killer herself rather than Johnson. Her testimony and that of Curtis Harbert, her compatriot at the crime scene in 1985, were used to convict Johnson in the trials he had in 1986 and 1988. Barr said the case “scares him.”

To “cover” his disgraceful decision to execute an innocent person, Mr. Hodges issued an inaccurate and misleading statement that was laden with lies and misrepresentations. John Blume, the leader of Johnson’s clemency application team, is a nationally renowned capital defense attorney and Professor at Cornell University Law School. Mr. Blume said he had “grave doubts about the integrity of a man who relies on demonstrably false information, and ignores other information, to justify taking a potentially innocent man’s life.”

Among the many false and misleading assertions in Governor Hodges’ statement and attachments that denied clemency was that Johnson had the gun used to kill Trooper Smalls in his possession when he was apprehended in a drunken stupor just after the shooting. That is absolutely untrue! This outright lie about critical physical evidence in the case was included in a letter attached to the denial of clemency from Randolph Murdaugh, III, the Solicitor of the 14th Judicial Circuit, who prosecuted the case in the 1986 and 1988 jury trials.

Murdaugh also included a quote from a statement made by Mr. Johnson to the jury in the sentencing phase of the trial after he had been convicted on the testimony of Hess and Harbert. Mr. Johnson’s court appointed, local lawyer probably advised Mr. Johnson to apologize to the jury for anything he had done to have a chance to avoid the death penalty. Since Mr. Johnson had no memory of what happened due to memory blackouts from his alcoholism and drug abuse, he told the jury he was sorry for anything he had done. This was highlighted by Hodges as an admission of guilt in denying clemency for Mr. Johnson. Murdaugh and his dad, “Buster,” have held the powerful Solicitor’s job for several decades in that judicial district. The Murdaugh’s and their law firm are known across South Carolina to wield unparalleled power over the judicial system and politics in that area of the state.

Another astounding lie and misrepresentation in Governor Hodges’ denial of clemency was that he (Hodges) was not aware of any member of “the Smalls family that has expressed support for clemency.” The clemency application itself contains an affidavit from Trooper Small’s mother, Mrs. Thelma Blue, that she was not in favor of Ricky Johnson receiving the death penalty and that it would “dishonor her son’s memory” if Ricky Johnson’s death sentence was carried out. State Senator Clementa Pinckney also informed Mr. Hodges that he had talked to the family and the family was not in favor of Ricky Johnson’s execution. Governor Hodges’ conduct in misleading and lying to the people is disgraceful.

Mr. Hodges was a lawyer for the wealthy before becoming Governor and has raised over five million dollars for his reelection, mainly from corporate and wealthy elites. About 15 minutes after her son, Ricky was killed by the State of South Carolina last Friday evening I talked Mrs. Nelda Johnson. Mrs. Johnson came down with her family from Morehead City, North Carolina to say goodbye to Ricky. Through her tears, she told me she was a poor, working class person who knew that if she had had the money to hire a good lawyer to get her son a fair trial back in the 80’s, Ricky would be alive and free. Mrs. Johnson then said that she was glad that Ricky never found out about her losing her job six weeks ago as a home health-care giver due to cutbacks in Medicaid.

Along with more than a hundred people gathered to protest the Governor’s deplorable denial of clemency, I was standing in front of the Governor’s Mansion complex grieving with Mrs. Johnson, Ricky’s sister, Lori Crawford and his brothers, Craig and John. As tears streamed down our faces, they all agreed, more than anything else, that they – and Ricky – wanted the world to know that he was innocent. As we cried together at the injustice of the death of their beloved son and brother, we looked beyond the high fences and security guards at the group of elegant mansions. John, who had just held the hand and looked into the eyes of his dying brother asked, “Is this the Governor’s Mansion?” I replied that yes, this is where Ricky might have become a waiter for the rich and well connected, if his death sentence had been commuted to life in prison. Mrs. Johnson said, “poor people don’t have a chance for justice. All I ever wanted was a fair trial for Ricky.”

Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and civil rights activist in Columbia, South Carolina. http://www.turnipseed.net

See Also:
Help Save the Life of an Innocent Man: Ask for Clemency for Ricky Johnson by CounterPunch contributor Kevin Alexander Gray.

 

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