Freed UVA Innocence Project Client Messiah Johnson Heads Home

Clinic Directors Meet Johnson Upon Release from Sussex II State Prison
Messiah Johnson poses with Innocence Project Clinic directors Deirdre Enright and Jennifer Givens

Recovering from a recent surgery, Messiah Johnson poses with Innocence Project Clinic directors Deirdre Enright and Jennifer Givens following his release, and just prior to his first meal outside of prison. Photo by Maire Enright Lee.

April 27, 2018

The directors of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law were on hand Wednesday for the release of client Messiah Johnson from the Sussex II State Prison in Waverly, Virginia.

Johnson was freed shortly after 9 a.m. on a conditional pardon. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed orders in January for his release.

Greeted by members of his family as well as the clinic’s directors, Johnson immediately gave his now-adult daughter Stephanie Johnson a tearful embrace.

Jennifer Givens, legal director for the clinic, said Johnson was in obvious pain from a recent neck surgery, but he welcomed contact from everyone.

“It was very strange to see him walk out of prison after more than 20 years, hug him, go get lunch, and then send him home to Norfolk,” Givens said.

“You pick up life again,” said clinic co-director Deirdre Enright ’92. “There’s no choice but to be normal, but there’s nothing normal about any of it.”

Johnson told them he looked forward to a bath and sleeping in a real bed. He was ready to go home.

Johnson, who the clinic says was wrongly convicted of a 1998 armed robbery of a Norfolk beauty salon, had been sentenced to 132 years in prison, although he had an alibi for the night in question and has always denied any involvement in the crime.

His claim of innocence has since been bolstered by another man's confession.

Kathryn (Clifford) Klorfein ’15, an associate at O’Melveny & Meyers, helped obtain the confession during her last year as a student, having started on the case in 2013. Students in the yearlong clinic investigate and litigate wrongful convictions of inmates throughout of Virginia.

“Deirdre and I drove down to visit [the alternate suspect],” Klorfein said. “He wasn't even aware that anyone had ever been convicted of the armed robbery of this beauty salon. Over the course of a few visits, he told us his story. He signed an affidavit confessing to the crime. Working on Messiah's case showed me the importance of a thorough, diligent investigation, especially in criminal cases. Little details, like a newspaper clipping about local crimes — that can be the breakthrough.”

Klorfein is just one of the numerous clinic students from throughout the years who worked on the case and were celebrating this week.

“Most of the students who have worked on Messiah’s case, myself included, have since graduated,” Angelique A. Ciliberti ’17 of the law firm Bradley said. “Even though we’ve faced some setbacks in his case, Messiah never lost hope and stayed persistent, always wanting to plan our next move. It’s great to finally see years of hard work pay off, and for Messiah to come home.”

Daniel R. Friel ’17 of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison said having worked on the case has been a source of tremendous pride.

“Working on Messiah’s case could end up genuinely being the proudest moment of my entire career as a lawyer,” Friel said. “I’m six months removed from my law school graduation, so that may sound like an overstatement, but I genuinely believe it. What happened to him is unconscionable, and I’m proud to have been a small part of the effort to help right this wrong.”

Johnson completed a reentry program prior to his release. He hopes to find work as a graphic designer, having trained and earned a certificate while behind bars.

The clinic will continue to pursue a full pardon on Johnson’s behalf, “and to litigate his wrongful conviction and his absolute innocence in court,” Enright said. George Brandley ’14, an associate in the law firm Davis Polk’s litigation department and a former student in the clinic, is serving as co-counsel on the case.

In the meantime, the clinic’s directors will help their client with everyday matters related to his transition, such as clothes-shopping.

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