Today’s guest columnist is Beth Shelburne.
Birmingham has more than enough stories about injustice. I know it’s exhausting.
But I’ve got a doozy you may not know about.
Why do you need to know about this one?
For starters, this miscarriage of justice happened right under our noses, not that long ago, and on our dime. The victim was a veteran deputy sheriff named Bill Hardy who was murdered behind a Birmingham hotel in the dark of night. But perhaps more urgently, the man at the center is at risk of being killed for a crime he did not commit.
I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. Here’s what Alabama’s former attorney general, Bill Baxley, said after reviewing this case.
“No question in my mind, this guy was not guilty of this crime. It’s a unique absurdity that I have never seen before. This is a situation that should not be allowed to exist another minute.”
Baxley is a lifelong defender of the death penalty, but after he read through the case against Toforest Johnson, he was so outraged, that he went out on a limb and began advocating for Mr. Johnson’s release.
In 2020, Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr also reviewed the case and filed an extraordinary motion in court asking for a new trial. That’s not all. The original trial prosecutor – the same man who stood before a jury and urged them to sentence Toforest Johnson to death – joined the District Attorney’s call for a new trial. That’s as rare an occurrence as Auburn and Alabama fans joining arms at the Iron Bowl and singing Kumbaya. In other words, it never happens.
And yet, as you read these words, Toforest Johnson still sits in a cell on Alabama’s death row. And the state of Alabama, represented by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, is still seeking Mr. Johnson’s execution.
I spent almost 9 years working as a news anchor and investigative reporter at WBRC Fox 6 in Birmingham. During that time, I covered a lot of stories involving crime, punishment and justice. But this story takes the cake. It is, hands down, the most absurd example of injustice that I have ever encountered.
That’s why I decided to spend two full years reporting on nothing else. The result is a podcast series called Earwitness that tells the story of how the state convicted a man of murder with no physical evidence and no eyewitnesses. Instead, prosecutors relied on the testimony of a single witness, who admittedly didn’t see or hear the murder, and wasn’t even at the crime scene. Not an eyewitness, but an earwitness.
This earwitness claimed she overheard Toforest Johnson discuss details of the murder on a jailhouse phone call. And there was no way to verify that she told the truth, because the jail didn’t record the phone calls that she claimed she overheard.
If that’s not bad enough, the state paid this earwitness $5000 for her testimony, then denied it for 17 years. And my reporting in Earwitness reveals other shocking facts about this witness and the practice of prosecutors hiding reward payments in at least one other Jefferson County case that resulted in a death row conviction.
Half a million people around the world have listened to Earwitness since its release. One critic called it “an instant classic.” I am thrilled and humbled that so many people have discovered the podcast, and find it so compelling. But only a small percentage of listeners live here in Alabama. Is that because fewer people here listen to podcasts? Or is it that the uncomfortable truths about this complicated place we call home are too much to bear?
I made Earwitness because I wanted to explore how an innocent person from right here in Birmingham ended up on death row. It is also a story that’s tailor-made for an in-depth podcast: incredible characters, jaw-dropping twists—did I mention that police ignored Mr. Johnson’s alibi?—and more than a few moments that have moved listeners to tears.
While Toforest Johnson is still alive, his life might be spared. Earwitness is a chance for you to go on an investigative journey with me into this case from your hometown. Then you can decide if you agree with Mr. Baxley and me, and join the chorus of people from around the world who are calling on Alabama to fix this mistake before it’s too late.
Greater Birmingham Ministries put together a website called Justice for Toforest Johnson. Click on “how you can help” to sign up for updates.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org