June 12, 2012 Source : http://www.commercialappeal.com
A former death row inmate who won a new trial in the 1983 murder of a Memphis grocer has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time he already has served.
Erskine Leroy Johnson, 54, was released Friday morning after serving 26 years, 11 months and five days for the shooting death of Joe Belenchia during a holdup on Oct. 2, 1983, at the Food Rite Grocery at 2803 Lamar.
“He is overjoyed at being out,” said Gerald Skahan, chief capital-case attorney in the Public Defenders Office. “He is looking forward to enjoying the rest of his life and spending it helping others.”
He said Johnson has always maintained his innocence, but entered an Alford plea, also called a best-interests plea, so he could get out of prison and avoid putting his family through a trial.
He was released Friday morning from the Shelby County Jail after entering his plea this week in Criminal Court.
Johnson was on death row from Jan. 26, 1995, to Nov. 15, 2004, but was re-sentenced to life in prison after the state Supreme Court ruled prosecutors did not give the defense a police report showing the defendant could not have fired a shot that wounded a customer in the store.
Then last December the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals awarded Johnson a new trial, ruling that newly discovered evidence raised by the defense may have caused the jury to reach a different verdict.
The court found that new evidence indicating close relationships among several of the state’s witnesses, if true, could have been viewed as a motive to protect other possible suspects and could have weakened the witnesses’ credibility before the jury.
Johnson said that around the time of the murder he was in St. Louis at a birthday party for his mother.
Prosecutors said Johnson’s palm print was found on the getaway car and that one witness told the jury that Johnson had confessed to “a cold-blooded” shooting in Memphis.
Deputy Dist. Atty. John Campbell said the state offered the settlement because the case was nearly 30 years old and Johnson already had served nearly 27 years in prison. A life sentence under laws in effect at the time of the murder was at least 25 years.
Campbell said prison officials had called Johnson “an exemplary prisoner” and that the state parole board had granted his release scheduled for June 11.
- An Innocent Man Walks Free After Twenty-seven Years in Prison (incaseofinnocence.wordpress.com)