On May 20, 2024, Jefferson County, Alabama District Attorney Danny Carr asked a circuit judge to grant a new trial to Toforest Johnson (center), an Alabama death row prisoner whose conviction DA Carr believes is “fundamentally unreliable.” This extraordinary request is the latest in a series of appeals for Mr. Johnson, who was sentenced to death in 1998 for the 1995 murder of Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff William Hardy but has always maintained his innocence. “A thorough review and investigation of the entire case leaves no confidence in the integrity of [Mr.] Johnson’s conviction,” DA Carr wrote. “The interest of justice demands that [Mr.] Johnson be granted a new trial.” DA Carr initially filed a motion requesting a new trial for Mr. Johnson in 2020, voicing similar concerns over the validity of his conviction. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear Mr. Johnson’s case in October 2023.

Mr. Johnson was convicted in the murder of Deputy Sheriff Hardy, who was killed in a hotel parking lot, despite his maintenance that he was at a nightclub across town. His conviction relied largely on testimony from Violet Ellison, who claimed to have listened to phone calls between her daughter and heard someone at Jefferson County Jail who identified himself as “Toforest” confess to the shooting. DA Carr wrote that Mr. Johnson’s original prosecutor has acknowledged that the case hinged on Ms. Ellison’s testimony and that “nobody contests that [Ms.] Ellison is the key to [Mr.] Johnson’s conviction and the reason he is on death row today.” In 2008, several individuals submitted affidavits in support of Mr. Johnson, claiming they had seen him across town on the night of the murder and in 2022, information was revealed indicating Ms. Ellison was a key witness in several other criminal cases for the State. “We also know that [Ms.] Ellison was not believed by law enforcement initially and that a different theory of the case that contradicted her account was pursued after [Mr.] Johnson’s trial and that the lead prosecutor now has such grave concerns about [Ms.] Ellison that he supports a new trial for [Mr.] Johnson,” DA Carr wrote.

Lawyers for Mr. Johnson have long argued that the prosecution suppressed evidence that Ms. Ellison had knowledge of the $5,000 reward being offered in the case and testified in hopes of receiving that money. In a 2018 hearing in Jefferson County, a copy of the check that was paid to Ms. Ellison surfaced after the US Supreme Court sent Mr. Johnson’s case back to state court. The Circuit court ruled that Mr. Johnson’s legal team could not establish that Ms. Ellison knew there was a reward when she talked with the police.

Former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, former Chief Justice Drayton Nabers, and several former judges and prosecutors have also voiced support for a new trial for Mr. Johnson, as well as three former jurors on the case. Shanaye Pool, Mr. Johnson’s daughter, was grateful for DA Carr’s support of her father. “Our hope is that the courts will agree with him. Our hope is for our family to finally be reunited,” said Ms. Poole.