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After 50 years in prison — 37 in solitary confinement — Philly man’s conviction is vacated

Arthur Johnson's conviction for a 1970 murder was fraught with "highly suspect" statements that the DA now says "seriously undermine the integrity of Johnson’s conviction."

Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson is hugged  by his "cousin/sister" Julie Burnett as another cousin, Sandris Windly, stands by after his release from prison.
Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson is hugged by his "cousin/sister" Julie Burnett as another cousin, Sandris Windly, stands by after his release from prison.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

In 2017, Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson won the right to leave solitary confinement after a remarkable 37 years on “restricted release” status in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections — an indefinite punishment for escape attempts dating back to the 1970s.

Now, the same legal team that advocated to move Johnson into the general population has won an even bigger victory: his release from prison after half a century of incarceration.

On Wednesday, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio agreed the prosecution’s case against Johnson for the 1970 murder of Jerome Wakefield in North Philadelphia was fraught with false and “highly suspect” statements. The DA wrote in a filing that those flaws “seriously undermine the integrity of Johnson’s conviction.”

DiClaudio said the DA’s filing made clear that a 15-year-old witness was coerced during a 30-hour interrogation in which he gave multiple conflicting statements before finally implicating Johnson. “The circumstances of that interrogation, some of it was withheld from your lawyer at the time of trial,” he told Johnson.

» READ MORE: Losing conviction: Philly’s murder exonerations raise questions about decades of homicide investigations

Assistant District Attorney Lyandra Retacco, of the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), said Wakefield’s family told her they felt Johnson had served enough time. “They were just kids,” she said they told her. Johnson was two months past his 18th birthday when prosecutors say he stabbed Wakefield, who had already been shot by Johnson’s juvenile codefendant, Gary Brame. Brame was sentenced to five to 15 years.

On Wednesday, Johnson agreed to a 10-to-20-year sentence — effectively time served — and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Before imposing the sentence, DiClaudio asked Retacco to provide the sentencing guidelines. “Guidelines didn’t exist in 1970,” she said. (Nor did the current third-degree murder statute, sending lawyers and court clerks scrambling to figure out how to correctly code Johnson’s new conviction and sentence so he could be released.)

The Abolitionist Law Center, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, represented Johnson in his pleas first to be released from solitary and then from prison. In 2017, a federal judge wrote in the first case that confining him “for at least 23 hours per day, to an area smaller than the average horse stall,” amounted to “an unconstitutional deprivation.”

“I done forgot,” he told The Inquirer in 2016, “how it feels to touch another person or to talk to another person without a [glass] screen or phone.”

» READ MORE: The Philly man who's spent three decades in solitary

Along the way, lawyer Bret Grote came to believe a review of Johnson’s criminal case was decades overdue.

“When he was convicted, Frank Rizzo was the police commissioner. Richard Nixon was president. The U.S. was in Vietnam. He was a teenager. He just turned 69 years old,” said Grote, of the Abolitionist Law Center. “His strength of character has been an inspiration for countless people passing through Pennsylvania prisons over the last half century.”

One of those people was Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, a former juvenile lifer and now the Abolitionist Law Center’s executive director, who met Johnson in “the hole” at State Correctional Institution Green, about 20 years into Johnson’s time in solitary. “He was a very stabilizing force on us. He encouraged us to read, to stay away from the dog-eat-dog prison culture, and to focus on bettering ourselves. Even though we all had life-without-parole sentences, he never gave into that hopelessness, nor did he allow us to give into that hopelessness.”

Another prisoner gave Johnson, who was perpetually working out, the nickname Cetewayo, after a Zulu leader, in recognition of Johnson’s strength and endurance.

Johnson has long maintained his innocence, Holbrook said. Though he signed a statement confessing to the stabbing, he said it was fabricated and his signature coerced through verbal and physical abuse over 21 hours in police custody.

According Johnson’s court filings, his codefendant Brame also has given a statement that Johnson had no role in Wakefield’s murder, instead implicating two other people who were questioned by police but not charged.

“We didn’t get justice, because I believe that he is innocent,” Holbrook said. “But we got freedom, and we are grateful to the CIU for agreeing to this.”

Friends and family who have known Johnson for more than half a century piled into the courtroom Wednesday, crying as his release was approved and vowing to support him as he starts over as a senior citizen. He has two sons, babies when he was jailed and now in their early 50s.

Julie Burnett, who describes herself as Johnson’s “cousin/sister” — his mother died when he was young, so he came to stay with her family — said she plans to take him into her home.

“I learned how to address envelopes shortly after he was taken to prison, and I’ve been corresponding with him ever since,” said Burnett, 55. “I just want him to know we never forgot him.”

She took off two weeks from work to help him get situated. “He can get up and go downstairs to the refrigerator when he wants to. He can go for a walk,” she said. She referenced the prison term walkies, meaning friends who walk the yard together. “I’m going to be his walkie on the outside.”